When you’re stuck or notice that you’re resisting your writing time, you have two alternatives: pay attention or daydream. Which should you choose? Depends on what you’ve been doing lately.
We have two different attentional states: focused attention, officially called the Central Executive mode, and daydreaming or the Mind-Wandering Mode. (more about two attentional states and about daydreaming and creativity.)
We respect people who pay attention and get things done. We tend to think less of people who daydream. Yet letting your mind wander free-range without agenda or distractions is the source of creative breakthroughs, those Eureka moments of insight and discovery. It’s also extremely satisfying and relaxing.
Neurologists were surprised to discover that the brain is just as active while we’re daydreaming as it is when we’re actively paying attention and focused on doing something. It’s just a different kind of activity.
When we’re paying attention, there is intense activity in a few areas of the brain. When we’re daydreaming, the activity is spread across the brain. Mind-wandering is a networked state of attention.
Since creativity requires bringing two or more previously separate ideas, images or things together in a new and cohesive way, we’re more likely to get creative insight when different areas of the brain are communicating, that is, when we’re daydreaming.
Fortune Favors the Prepared Mind
Of course, you can’t combine ideas and information you don’t have. We gather information, images and ideas when we’re paying attention. Research, learning, observation and life experience give our dreaming mind material to work with.
There’s a reason Einstein’s daydreaming led to a theory of relativity – the man knew his stuff. Darwin could envision evolution because he spent years in the field collecting samples.
Mary Shelley could imagine Frankenstein and his monster because she spent a dreary summer in “The Year Without a Summer” (caused by volcanic ash spewed from Mount Tambora) reading ghost stories by candlelight with literary friends in the Swiss Alps.
If all you’ve been doing lately is dreaming about writing, it’s time to prepare your mind by taking action, paying attention and maybe taking a field trip.
The Cost of Attention
When you focus your attention, you get the satisfaction of accomplishing (or at least making progress on) the tasks you focus on. You complete a draft, discover what you need in your research, or revise and edit a piece. This is also the state of consciousness you typically bring to a day job and things you need to get done in your personal life: do your taxes, respond to email, complete a spreadsheet, cook a meal, learn a new skill.
We usually accomplish tasks by taking action directed by the Central Executive mode. We typically solve problems by actively trying to figure them out. The focused attention state of consciousness excels at keeping us on task.
But when we pay attention, we pay. It takes a lot of cognitive energy to maintain focus. This is why you probably can’t work for hours at a day job and come home and immediately start writing.
Letting your mind wander is an excellent way to restore your cognitive energy. Taking a walk or staring out the window for ten minutes could be the most effective way to re-engage with your writing.
You might feel too tired to think about writing or anything else and consequently want to zone out. Be careful. Checking social media, watching TV, playing a game on your phone or tablet is NOT daydreaming.
Mind-wandering is letting your thoughts go wherever they will; zoning out is letting someone or something else is direct your thoughts.
There are two ways through writer’s block; not three. Sometimes daydreaming takes you through writer’s block. Sometimes paying attention takes you through. Zoning out will never take you through resistance; it only mires you deeper.