The prewriting toolkit: daydreaming

balloon daydream

In our goal-driven culture, daydreaming often has negative connotations:  we might be accused of time wasting or of losing focus on the task in hand.  This negativity might also have its roots in the influence of Sigmund Freud, who believed that daydreamers were infantile and neurotic.  Yet writers often regard mind wandering as a valuable tool for accessing ideas and the crucial connections between them.  In a poll taken at the panel session I attended last month at the National Association of Writers in Education, for instance, daydreaming featured as the most popular prewriting activity – perhaps because we all do quite a lot of it, much of the time.

What are the benefits of daydreaming?

Research into daydreaming stretches back to the 1960s when psychologist Jerome Singer suggested that daydreaming falls into three distinct categories: dysphoric (obsessive, anxious fantasies); poor attentional control (the inability to concentrate) and positive constructive daydreaming.  It is this last one – which allows ‘playful, wishful imagery’ and ‘planful, creative thought’ (McMillan, Kaufman and Singer, 2013) – that is of most interest to writers and creatives.

daydreaming please wait

Building on Singer’s early work, recent psychologists emphasize the benefits of mind wandering.  According to Scott B Kaufman, daydreaming helps us to consolidate memories and synthesize disparate ideas and plans; this leads to a greater sense of identity and personal meaning.  Crucially, for us as writers (as well as human beings), it increases empathy – the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes.   There’s another potential benefit, too: one of the functions of daydreaming is ‘attentional cycling’ (McMillan et al) in which we rotate through different information streams to pursue long term goals.  So although we might look like we’re simply staring out of the window, in actual fact we might be laying the foundations for future creative projects.

Can we learn how to daydream ?

In an article in Psychology Today, Kaufman outlines an experiment done by psychologists to determine the effectiveness of daydreaming in a high school context.  He describes how, in one school, a nine week programme encouraged students to imagine the futures they wanted and to practice the skills they would need to achieve them – a type of ‘autobiographical planning.’

‘By the end of the school year, the daydreaming students reported a greater connection to their school, a greater concern about doing well in school, more strategies for actually realizing their dreams, and better attendance. What’s more, they were better able to balance their positive expectations against feared possible outcomes. There was also a significant reduction in behavioral problems among the boys. In other words, daydreaming helped students achieve the very things educators assume it hinders.’

Scott Kaufman, ‘Dreams of Glory‘, Psychology Today, March 2014

While many of us daydream, much of the time, we might be unaware of its potency.  It’s fascinating to think how daydreaming might be harnessed in this way for educational advantage in young people, but it also prompts the question as to how we might use it as a positive and constructive part of our creative process.

How to practice positive constructive daydreaming

  • Create regular space

Paradoxical though it sounds, we can plan to daydream.  In the same way as we might schedule writing time, we can deliberately set aside regular periods for mind wandering.  Whenever I’m able to, I like to take a cup of tea back to bed first thing and stare out the window for twenty minutes’ unstructured thinking.  I find that, first thing in the morning, I’m closest to that state of sleep that allows me to pursue trains of thought that might provide me with valuable insights.

Or you might consider using your daily commute to work in a different way.  Children’s author Liz Flanagan (@lizziebooks) likes to stare out of train windows, letting the moving landscape shape her thoughts.  Others cite driving (try switching off the stereo!) or gardening as activities that allow for productive mind wandering.

  • Don’t feel guilty

Daydreaming is a common phenomenon.  Psychologists suggest that it occupies a significant amount of our waking time.  And it can be good for us.  What Singer terms ‘positive constructive daydreaming’ is linked with qualities such as  openness to experience, curiosity, sensitivity and exploration of ideas, feelings and sensations –qualities which can surely only be an advantage to creativity.

  • Embrace simple tasks

A study by psychologists Benjamin Baird et al in 2012 suggests that simple activities which permit daydreaming can promote creative incubation and problem solving.  Any repetitive action which minimises focus on the external environment will fulfil this function.  I’ve blogged before about how washing up is my favourite activity for exploring ideas and following trains of thought but any other domestic chore will do.

brain enlightenment

  • Don’t let it take over

As ever, balance is the key.  We need to embrace the advantages of daydreaming without it impinging on the progress of achieving the creative goals we dream about.  Too much mind wandering and we also lose our connection with the present moment – which is another vital aspect of successful writing.

Perhaps the most useful way of achieving this balance – as suggested in an article by Schooner et al – is to be mindful.  This means being aware of the need for different modes of thought at different times, of focusing on the present task when necessary mind wandering when the task allows less mental precision.  For writers then, the way forward might be to create a regular space for daydreaming which is already delimited; by allowing ourselves to daydream within certain established (and mindful) perameters.

Want to read more? 

Benjamin Baird et al, ‘Inspired by Distraction’, Psychological Science

Rebecca McMillan, Scott Kaufman and Jerome Singer, ‘Ode to positive constructive daydreaming’, Frontiers in Psychology

Scott B Kaufman, ‘Dreams of Glory’, Psychology Today

Jonathan W Schooler et al, ‘The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering



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