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Writings

Is Daydreaming the Cognitive Casualty of the 21st Century?

I recently found myself running late for a flight home out of LaGuardia. Passing quickly through security (bless you mobile boarding passes!), I dashed to the gate, arriving moments before it closed.

My relief, however, was short-lived. After a full day presenting with customers, I took my seat and realized not only was my phone on the verge of collapse, its backup Mophie battery had been drained earlier, and my weakening laptop battery had been depleted during presentations. With no time to charge before the flight, I was now without either of my primary travel devices.

Although I almost always have a physical book on me (lately this), I was literally and figuratively in rare air. I was going to have 95 minutes without any digital technologies, or distractions. So I took it.

I was going to have 95 minutes without any digital technologies, or distractions.

My goodness, I hate to admit it, but I struggled to let my mind wander. How unusual a sensation it is to feel like I have time to waste - no calendar, no Evernote, no email, no music, nothing.

As opposed to sleeping, I tried to thoughtfully think - be it about current projects, recent technologies that I'd come across, various impending deadlines, my upcoming wedding - any of a plethora of random items crept in and out of my consciousness.

What at first took some effort, began to lapse quite plainly into daydreaming. Even as I write this, I worry, have I gotten so consumed by constant stimulation that it takes effortto daydream? To think uninhibitedly? Is this what I've come to?

While speaking at a conference recently, I posited to the audience, we've moved away from an era where we're time-starved, into an era where we're attention-starved. The only thing we've become truly wired to is unfettered activity. 

...we've moved away from being time-starved into an era where we're attention-starved.

In the weeks following this episode, I began to research the idea of daydreaming's material value. Far from a neglected topic, I was taken aback by the deluge of writings on daydreaming's salubrious benefits; from increased creative output, to the reduction of stress and improved testing scores, or the ability to craft improvisational efforts

Although the act of daydreaming has traditionally been considered a mental mistake or an attribute of the inattentive or lazy, current research is showing how this activity can lead to improved mental health, constructive planning, and enhanced social skills. What crystallizes is that daydreaming isn't something to be relegated to the young or perceived negatively, but rather a requisite exercise for those tackling the stresses of adulthood, formidable careers, or complex challenges.

Unfortunately, making this time in the modern era actually demands effort (or divine business-travel intervention). These moments require decompression away from devices, screens, smartwatches, and the variety of other sensory inputs consuming our precious attention.

And therein lies the dilemma. Breaking from the scourge of digital ubiquity is a battle for many of us. But with the noted upsides, the only question becomes, when will you find the time to let your mind wander?