When daydreaming becomes a practice, it can bring surprising benefits and help us become better entrepreneurs and leaders, says Nelisha Wickremasinghe, an Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School
Daydreaming was something most of us were told off for doing at school, and if we do it now people say we are time wasting or that we have our head in the clouds. However, certain kinds of daydreaming can help us become better entrepreneurs, leaders, innovators and creators.
Daydreaming is supported by our imaginal capability (which some people associate with right brain activities) whereas being logical, verbal and orderly is supported by our rational capability – often associated with the left brain. To be at our best in business and in life, we need both capabilities – and brain hemispheres – working well together.
This happens when, for example, we allow our minds to roam and dream actively before opening our laptops each day or when we take a moment each morning to remember our dreams before looking at our phones. Albert Einstein famously said he lived his daydreams in music. He was a rational scientist who was hugely influenced and inspired by his imagination, and he frequently allowed himself to be carried away by music and dreams. For Einstein, these moments were the source of his brilliant ideas and theories.
Daydreaming as a practice
Daydreaming as a means of improving the way we understand people, or think and innovate, is different from the kind of daydreaming we do when we simply drift off in pleasant thoughts about, for example, winning the lottery or moving to a place in the sun. When daydreaming becomes a practice – like yoga or mindful breathing – and is something we do regularly and intentionally, it can bring surprising benefits.
We can experience inspiration, ideas, and insights that would not have occurred to us had we remained in our usual rational, problem-solving, hyper-busy routines. The conscious practice of stimulating both hemispheres of our brain means that those ideas and insights arise ‘around the clock’ – not just when we’re daydreaming. Although they will tend to arise more at particular moments – in the bath or shower, out walking, or on waking without an alarm.
Unfortunately, many of us do rely almost exclusively on our rational capability because as children we were not taught to use our imagination as well as we were taught to use our intellect. On top of that, our culture rewards rational logic and behaviour over intuition and feeling, which makes us value these things and shapes the way we relate to others and the way in which we solve problems.
People who are oriented to rational thinking are often are less empathic, less comfortable with novelty and the unfamiliar, less spontaneous, and tend to divide up the world around them into parts and categories. As a result, they fail to see the deeper meanings and connections between people and situations. Rational people might appear to be smarter but actually their thinking and behaviour is less complex than those whose rational and imaginal brain muscles are working well together. Rationalists will often struggle to ‘think out of the box’ or engage in creative ‘blue sky’ activities at work because their imaginal brain, rarely used, doesn’t have the skill or ability to help out on demand.
The reason our rational capability is less effective on its own is because it is a closed system that can only work with the contents already in it. If nothing new is offered then it will simply re-hash the same old ideas and theories to explain things and make decisions. But ‘explaining’ – which the rational brain is good at – is not the same as ‘understanding’. The word ‘mansplaining’ is familiar to many of us and refers not just to a male habit of patronising women but also to the rationalist tone of talk with its preference for intellectualising, describing and explaining. When we understand something we see it in its context and experience it more fully and deeply.
Day (and night) dreaming dissolves the hard boundary between the rational and the imaginal and enables us to truly understand ourselves, others and situations. When we dream, we allow the contents of our unconscious mind to influence us and it is from the ‘Mind Palace’ of our unconscious that the clues and suggestions for solving life’s mysteries will emerge.
Five top tips to become a better daydreamer
- Give yourself permission to daydream and remind yourself that daydreaming is going to increase your potential and performance.
- Once or twice a day, lie back and stare at the ceiling or out of the window and practice the soft gaze. This is when we look into the distance but don’t focus on any one thing. Focusing stops our mind from wandering – which is what we want it to do when we dream.
- Once you have mastered the soft gaze, practise ‘open attention’ by being interested in the comings and goings of your thoughts and feelings without getting stuck on them. If you do get stuck, turn your attention to your breathing. The in-and-out rhythm of your breath is soothing and can help detach your thoughts from worries and overthinking.
- Exercise your imagination by resting your gaze on an object – the tree outside or a coffee cup – and imagine yourself to be that object. What do you as tree or coffee cup want to say? Engage in a conversation with the tree or cup.
- Practice ‘freefall writing’. Take a stem sentence from anywhere – a book, or a magazine, or even just words in your head. Examples might be: ‘all aboard the night train…’; ‘Some children…’; or ‘there’s a joke about…’ Now continue writing from that stem sentence. When you feel stuck it’s very important to keep writing. If you stop, you’ve been hi-jacked by left brain rationality that wants you to make this writing tidy and logical. Instead, just keep writing the stem sentence over and over again until you unblock and your imagination flows again. Write like this for at least three minutes (time yourself) and practise daily. You’ll be surprised at what comes out when the ink starts to flow!
If daydreaming exercises leave you feeling cynical or frustrated, remind yourself that much of our greatest literature, mechanical and technological inventions, medical breakthroughs and understanding of the universe has come from open-minded daydreamers who have embraced the novel, the absurd and the unintelligible. If more of us became daydream believers our workplaces and relationships would thrive as we start to see the possibility, mystery and beauty of the everyday and the ordinary.
Nelisha Wickremasinghe is a Psychologist and an Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. She is also the author of Being with Others: Curses, spells and scintillation (Triarchy Press, 2021).