The Benefits of Intentional Daydreaming

Your fitness tracker reminds you to walk away from your computer every hour to get needed movement – and then counts how many steps you do all day. In conjunction with the app on your phone, it tells you how well you’ve slept – or not, and whether you’ve gotten your heart rate up enough on your daily run. Other apps on your computer remind you when it’s time for meetings, help you focus to meet deadlines, or give you a run-down on the weather. Even Facebook, which is supposed to be just for fun connection, lets you know when you need to say “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Numerous social media sites tell you how many “likes” your posts get. In short, we live in a world creativity consultant Jeffrey Davis describes as increasingly “app-happy” and “metric-hungry” (2017).

It is a world that – despite the myriad digital and other distractions – is asking us increasingly to concentrate so that we will get better “results”. In this brave, new-ish world of achievement, productivity, and staying on track, the watchword has been “focus”, and “spacing out” or daydreaming has become an even more shameful activity than it used to be.

But change is in the wind. Psychologists and neuroscientists have recently been coming together to help us understand new discoveries about how the brain works, and it turns out that, yes, daydreaming is sometimes bad for us, and even dangerous (think air traffic controllers or surgeons zoning out on the job), but also, there is a type of daydreaming that helps us to be our innovative best. We take a look today at the phenomenon of intentional daydreaming. As a counsellor, your understanding of how it works and how it helps may just be the piece the client needs to stop feeling guilty and start maximising the benefits of unfocusing: deliberately.

What is intentional daydreaming, and why should we bother with it?

Focus all day . . .

To understand on-purpose daydreaming, let us review for a moment what happens with unintentional daydreaming: the kind that most of us are woefully familiar with. It’s easy for traditional mind-wandering to get started in our world which seems to require hyper-focus 24/7. We try to concentrate all day long – sometimes with incredible intensity – at our work. We go to the gym and give it our all as we focus on our exercise regime. Then we go home and must concentrate again as loved ones demand our time and attention. It is exhausting! So our minds seek the natural antidote to all this super-focus: daydreaming.

. . . Then zone out, becoming unwell

When we daydream, the “executive” parts of our brain are not active. If a brain scan were being conducted during a moment of just sitting and “doing nothing”, chances are that the parts responsible for executing important decisions and getting things done would not light up. The part of the brain that is working at such moments is called the “default mode network”, or DMN. Some have dubbed it the “Doing Mostly Nothing” part of the brain (although, as we will explain in a moment, that has short-changed it considerably) (Pillay, 2017).

If you are a mental health professional, you know the havoc that clients can wreak on themselves when their minds are idle. It’s not surprising that studies have turned up correlations between activation of the DMN and a lack of happiness. When the DMN is in full flight, people may turn to ruminating: regrets from the past (“I lost my cool and feel like a loser”), worries about what will happen (“The new manager doesn’t like me, and I’m sure to lose my job soon”), or negative self-talk (“I hate myself”). It’s as if we’re headed full tilt down the motorway in a driverless car, and someone has hacked into the car’s computer system, causing it to run amok.

If you’re following the argument so far, you are rightly asking: so what do we do? What do we advise clients to do? Being supremely focused all the time helps us get stuff done and lead a stellar life, but depletes us, yet when we try to de-focus, zone out, our daydreaming makes us vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and a general lack of wellbeing (Davis, 2017).

Intentional daydreaming uses the same neuronal networks

Enter intentional daydreaming. While the notion is not new (see below), there is a newly-generated buzz about it, and here’s why. Unintentional daydreaming occurs when, despite our best efforts to concentrate, random thoughts keep popping into our head; we have an unwelcome disruption of thought (i.e., “Why am I thinking of this right now?”). This is as opposed to times when we are capable of keeping a focus on a task, but choose to daydream: say, about an upcoming holiday, a car we are thinking of buying, or a new love in our life. In the latter instance we experience an intentional shift in focus (i.e., “I’d rather think about this right now”). Intentional daydreaming uses the same neuronal networks – that is, the default mode network – as unintentional daydreaming, but with very different consequences for our health and happiness.

The problem with focus

When we are in super-concentration mode, our attention is narrowly focused; this diminishes our capacity to come up with fresh ideas and solutions to problems. The selective attention acts like a barrier, keeping out stray thoughts and external stimuli. This laser focus is fabulous for executing and completing tasks, but is not what is needed for generating new, creative solutions to complex problems, and may ultimately hurt us in life or work. The narrow focus tends to give us competition blindness, makes us miss opportunities for innovation, and tips us toward short-sighted decision-making (Pillay, 2017). In fact, Davis (2017) points to a study which actually correlates the inability to filter out distractions with the ability to come up with novel solutions.

When we are in hyper-focus mode, our DMN is not highly stimulated. Part of that network, the anterior pre-frontal cortex, awakens, rather, when we are involved in recounting memories and making meaning from both our ideas and our external surroundings. It’s stimulated when we are making meaningful decisions. A core part of this meaning-making happens when we connect our past experiences and ideas with our future visions. Hyper-focus shuts down all of that in favour of getting things done: like, NOW (Davis, 2017).

The paradox of daydreaming

Thus, paradoxically, the frames of mind we require to generate novel, useful, and innovative ideas and solutions appear to be more aligned with daydreaming than with executive focus: that is, coming up with new and unusual combinations of existing ideas and also quirky ideas, some of which might work (Davis, 2017). But to get these benefits and avoid the problems of unintentional daydreaming, we have to know how to daydream on purpose; we have to practice it. We offer a few strategies for engaging deliberate daydreaming at the end of the article, but first, let us take a quick look at how social and other scientists came to understand that there are, in fact, two types of daydreaming.

The history of daydreaming

Our understanding of daydreaming isn’t totally new. As early as 1975, Yale psychologist Jerome Singer conceded that, while daydreaming could be linked to ruminative thoughts and poor attention control – in other words, bad for us – there was also a phenomenon he observed in his decade of research and observation that he began to call “positive constructive daydreaming”, or PCD, a more helpful type of daydreaming characterised by playful imagery and creative thought. Obviously, there was no fMRI in 1975, but Singer considered this type of daydreaming to be helpful: a product of a healthy mind and linked to a number of positive functions (Gholipour, 2016).

Researchers pay attention to lack of attention

The distinction between unintentional and intentional daydreaming was ignored for years; then in a 2013 review of Singer’s work, writer Rebeca McMillan and psychologist Scott Kaufman noted Singer’s comment that daydreaming could “reinforce and enhance social skills, offer relief from boredom, provide opportunities for rehearsal and constructive planning, and provide an ongoing source of pleasure” (2013, in Gholipour, 2016). In fact, systematic attention to the merits of PCD had already begun.

Dr Paul Seli, a post-doctorate fellow in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, conducted a study with University of Waterloo colleagues Dr Evan Risko and Dr Daniel Smilek in which they looked at intentional and unintentional daydreaming by measuring rates of these two types of mind-wandering in 113 university students who completed sustained-attention tasks that had varying rates of difficulty (Nauert, 2018). Half of the subjects completed an easy version of the task, and the other half completed a challenging version of the task. Throughout the study, participants were prompted to mark their current mental state as being “on task”, “intentionally mind-wandering”, or “unintentionally mind-wandering”. The overall rate of mind-wandering was the same for both groups, but there were significant differences in rates of intentional and unintentional mind-wandering, depending on how challenging the task was.

When participants completed the easy, very boring, task, they reported more intentional mind-wandering. Conversely, those students completing the challenging task reported more unintentional mind-wandering. Seli observed that these results challenged the view that all mind-wandering was unintentional. He also said it indicated that intentional and unintentional mind-wandering are different cognitive experiences, and that researchers needed to distinguish between them in future work in order to avoid what would otherwise appear to be contradictory findings (Nauert, 2018).

Daydream with non-demanding tasks in order to perform better later

Obviously, if study participants were mainly doing intentional daydreaming when they were asked to do non-challenging tasks, the $64,000 question is: If we choose to daydream on non-demanding things, will it help us do more difficult tasks later? Davis cites a 2012 study published in Psychological Science in which undergraduates (aged 19 to 32) were all given tasks. The group who engaged with an undemanding, non-related task on a break were 41% more successful at ensuing tasks than the group that was given a demanding task on their break. They also outperformed a group given no break. They weren’t necessarily more successful at generating ideas, but at working through existing problems (Davis, 2017).

Links between deliberate daydreaming and mindfulness

Researchers have also found that, while unintentional daydreaming is associated with fidgeting and acting mindlessly, deliberate mind-wandering may be linked with mindfulness. In 2014, Seli and colleagues found that on-purpose daydreaming was highly correlated with the aspect of mindfulness known as “non-reactivity to inner experience,” which occurs when practitioners of mindfulness perceive feelings and emotions without having to react to them. Seli concluded that the more people intentionally mind-wandered, the more mindful they were, and the converse was also true: that unintentional mind-wandering occurred more to those who were less mindfully aware (Gholipour, 2016).

Increasing the capacity for PCD

So, how do we harness this power of PCD? What do we tell our clients to do if they would make productive the 47% of time during the day that researchers tell us our minds are adrift (Pillay, 2017)?

Make space for musing

Of course, we must make space in our schedule: that is, make time, by using the few minutes when stuck on a problem to walk away and do something non-demanding (like gardening or knitting, although not surfing the internet or checking social media!). We can thus engage the DMN, so that we can come back fresh to the problem. But in saying “make space for musing”, we mean physical space – in the office or at home, or somewhere – to go and quietly, intentionally, daydream (Davis, 2017).


We have written previously about this, but when we are tired and want to re-energise our brain and/or when creatively stuck, the advice is to lie down for 10 minutes to re-gain mental clarity. Those who get a few minutes of actual unconsciousness get a bonus, but even without that, we are likely to come back to the demanding work refreshed. Note that a longer nap may be needed when the task is to figure out how to get contradictory ideas to come together (Pillay, 2017).

Clean the desk mindfully

What? Yes, advise your client to clean their desk, straighten their bookshelves, or sharpen their pencils – all famous tricks of writers to get past stuckness, as they are involving the DMN for a few minutes of de-focusing in order to return more powerfully to the writing task – but this must be done mindfully. The magic here is in the non-demanding-ness of the task coupled with one’s awareness of awareness (Davis, 2017).

Do possibility thinking as part of intentional daydreaming

Naturally, we must be grounded in reality for our lives and work to succeed. But major breakthroughs and innovations have often come from those who stood outside and asked what was possible. By believing a solution to be possible, our brain’s levels of opioids and dopamine increase, allowing us to feel more motivated and less stressed. Asking what is possible activates the brain differently than when we ask what is realistic. Notice that, in doing possibility thinking, we are choosing to daydream about what we’d like to see happen, or what could happen.


In the same category as cleaning the desk, this one can be done on a conference call or at a meeting, Activating the un-focus this way makes the mind more like an absorbent sponge than a stiff one, so we better remember what was said (Pillay, 2017).

Walk on a meandering path

We don’t mean a straight, rectangular one, but a twisting, turning one, in order to increase creativity.

Re-jig the schedule and/or the lifestyle

For start, the work mode of 24/7 availability to work has to go. Where in that is there time for the DMN to really do its thing? Boundaries between work and personal life are still a good thing, despite the temptation of emails and the seeming possibility of getting ahead on a project by putting in just a few extra hours tonight. Beyond that, your client may wish to conduct an overall change of lifestyle, in which they identify times of the day when their energy is low and then build in some un-focused activity time during 10-15 minute periods. For example, if the client experiences a low right after lunch, they might go for a walk. A mid-afternoon low could be resolved with a 10-15 minute nap, while an early evening one might see the person doing 10 minutes of gardening upon getting home from work. It’s tempting to think of these times as “wasting time”, but in fact they should be thought of as refuelling the brain (Pillay, 2017).


The idea of daydreaming – especially at work – might sound counterintuitive, but an expanding body of research is showing that the right kind of un-focus – that is, intentional mind-wandering — not only refreshes and re-energises the daydreamer, but also, due to the role of the DMN, allows the brain to integrate newly-gathered material with already-existing understandings, generating insight, innovation and creativity, plus enhanced capacity for meaning-making. It might just be a middle path between the burnout of perpetual laser-focus on one hand and tuning out and being wholly unproductive on the other. You might, however, advise the client to let the boss know that doing nothing “productive” for a few minutes each day is about to become part of the work routine!


  • Davis, J. (2017). The science of the daydreaming paradox for innovation. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 16 Jan, 2019, from: Website
  • Gholipour, B. (2016). The right kind of daydreaming. Huffington Post. Retrieved on 15 January, 2019, from: Website
  • Nauert, R. (2018). What happens when daydreaming is intentional? Psych Central. Retrieved on 15 January, 2019, from: Website
  • Pillay, S. (2017). The unlikely benefits of distraction. Duke Corporate Education. Retrieved on 15 January, 2019, from: Website