We want and need what Cal Newport defines as Deep Work: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”
In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport advises that we must reserve time and follow routines that preserve our ability to focus so we can enter a state of distraction-free concentration.
I contend that distraction-free mind-wandering is an unrecognized part of Deep Work. I’m confident that the knowledge workers and artists mentioned in Newport’s Deep Work consciously create opportunities for distraction-free concentration and intuitively engage in distraction-free mind-wandering.
Because distraction-free mind-wandering is unrecognized and our culture is biased against it, our need for it is even greater.
Writers Need Free Range Brains
When was the last time you left your mind wander free for more than 10 minutes? Ignored your work projects and To Do list? Unplugged from social media, stepped away from your computer, phone, tablet and TV and even stopped reading? Simply let your eyes take in what’s in front of you and let ideas bob to the surface and float away?
For some of us, it’s been so long that we get a little squeamish at the mere idea of not having some distraction direct our attention. We’re like city folk in the woods, so accustomed to noise and activity, we find the stillness unsettling.
Yet, the research is clear that the brain needs downtime, particularly after we focused our attention to learn something new or do deep work. The human brain needs extended time in a state that is not sleep, but not constant activity and concentration either.
Writers in particular need time for our brains to range freely.
Focused Brain, Free Brain
It turns out that, despite what your grade school teachers might have told you, staring out the window and letting your mind wander is NOT a sign of mental laziness. It is an essential part of how your brain works.
Daniel J. Levitin, director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University and the author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload explains in The New York Times:
“Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain).
“The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive.
“The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.”
The task-negative network is also called the default network because it’s what the brain defaults to when we are not consciously paying attention.
Wandering Takes Effort
Neurologist Marcus Raichle asked test subjects in an fMRI machine to not think about anything when they were not performing specific tasks that were the focus of his research. He assumed brain activity would drop and give him a baseline measure, but instead it soared.
Because the brain tends to be energy-efficient, Raichle concluded the increased neural activity meant something significant was happening. When he set out to find what, he realized people were daydreaming.
Wandering into Creative Insight
“[when daydreaming] there is a particularly elaborate electrical conversation between the front and back parts of the brain… These cortical areas don’t normally interact directly; they have different functions and are part of distinct neural pathways. It’s not until we start to daydream that they being to work closely together.”
Mind-wandering causes disparate parts of the brain to interact in a more fluid, non-linear fashion that allows the brain to make the new connections and associations that are the heart of creativity.
Daniel Levitin explains,
“You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly — boom — the answer to a problem that had been vexing you suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we didn’t previously see as connected.”
Levitin also observes,
“The history of science and culture is filled with stories of how many of the greatest scientific and artistic discoveries occurred while the creator was not thinking about what he was working on—not consciously anyway—the daydreaming mode solved the problem for him, and the answer appeared suddenly as a stroke of insight.”
Daydreaming inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, revealed a theory of relativity to Albert Einstein and prompted August Kekule to recognize that benzene’s structure is circular.
Wandering into Renewed Energy
It seems paradoxical because mind-wandering requires extra oxygen and glucose to fuel increased neural activity, but it simultaneously restores mental energy.
In an interview with Mother Jones, Daniel Levitin said:
“That daydreaming mode…turns out to be restorative. It’s like hitting the reset button in your brain. And you don’t get in that daydreaming mode typically by texting and Facebooking. You get in it by disengaging.”
Creativity Needs Both Wandering and Focused Concentration
Creativity requires shifting from intense focus concentrated on solving a problem to intervals of mind-wandering (aka incubating). Most creative breakthroughs come when we stop trying – in the shower, driving, watching a fire, daydreaming.
Of course those eureka moments can’t arrive if you don’t also invest time and attention on researching the problem and striving for solutions. There’s a reason Einstein’s daydreaming led to a theory of relativity – the man knew his stuff.
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.
Nearly constant stimulus from electronic devices, a flood of email and social media, movies and TV series that can be streamed at any time and a flood of information from media makes it harder to achieve either focused-attention or mind-wandering.
Authors like Cal Newport offer rules for distraction-free concentration. But where do we find guidelines for distraction-free mind-wandering? We find it one word.
One Word Synonym for Distraction-free Mind-wandering: Process
Committing to 15 to 30 minutes of “idly” coloring, playing with clay, knitting, painting, listening to music (really listening, not just having it on in the background while you’re doing something else), whittling, making a wooden model, playing with sand (Kinetic sand or regular), or any other play is typically enough activity to keep distractions at bay while letting your brain slide into the default mode.
Process is typically the most challenging habit for writers to dedicate time to. It seems so frivolous and non-productive. I admit there are times when I struggle to maintain my Process habit, but I always return because I know how important it is and because I feel the consequences of skimping on Process almost immediately.
Committing to regular Process playtime at least three or four times a week is an acknowledgment and reminder that mind-wandering is valuable. Repeatedly giving yourself time to intentionally and determinedly set aside “doing something productive” or constantly interrupting and distracting yourself allows your brain to function normally.
So what are you doing for Process these days? What apparently frivolous creative activity is freeing your brain to make new creative connections to fuel your writing?
How do you ensure you have both deep work and deep play?