Focus! Concentrate! Pay attention! And whatever you do, don't daydream.
Sound familiar? From the day we start school we're told, time and time again, that in order to succeed, we need to focus.
But according to psychiatrist and brain researcher Dr Srini Pillay, author of Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind, 'focus' is not the be all and end all of success.
In fact, Dr Pillay believes it's essential to build regular, deliberate 'unfocus' time into your day, saying that it promotes brain calmness, increases productivity, improves long-term memory and sparks creativity.
And it all comes down to the way the brain works.
When we're focused, we use a part of the brain called the fronto-parietal cortex. Dr Pillay describes this part as a flashlight with a strong, powerful but narrow beam that allows you to focus on the task at hand.
What it doesn't allow you to do is see the big picture – the information on the periphery that's more easily brought to the brain's attention during periods of 'unfocus'.
To continue with the flashlight analogy, the beam that allows you to reach far and wide is the default mode network (DMN) or what Dr Pillay calls the "unfocused network".
The DMN is a collection of brain regions that are active during rest and usually de-activate during focused tasks.
These networks come alive when you daydream, tinker with a hobby, dabble in a field different to your area of expertise and even when you doodle.
Spending time in each of these 'unfocused' states often leads to those eureka moments that can fail to come during times of intense focus.
Building time into your day to incorporate some of these unfocused activities is essential for the brain to function at its best, says Dr Pillay.
"Focus is important. None of us would be able to get anything done without it, but the brain actually works in a cognitive rhythm where focus and unfocused networks work together to create an optimal brain state," he says.
Dr Pillay recommends allocating time for daydreaming, but not just any type of daydreaming.
"My firm recommendation is to learn how to do positive constructive daydreaming and incorporate it a couple of times a week."
So what is this type of daydreaming and how is it different to old-fashioned daydreaming? According to Dr Pillay, beginning to daydream is a sign of an exhausted brain.
"Slipping into a daydream is like falling off a cliff. However, planning to daydream is like planning a skydive. You're actually planning to launch yourself into a different mental state – you're not just slipping into it."
Dr Pillay explains that to daydream in this way you need to use volitional and playful imagery – for example, imagining yourself on a yacht or walking through the woods seeing the sights, smelling the smells and hearing the sounds.
This kind of imagining stimulates the brain's DMN, which studies have shown helps develop creativity.
However, Dr Pillay adds that you should pair your daydreaming with an activity that's not demanding, such as knitting or gardening, as it activates a more effective kind of mind-wandering.
If you're worried that allowing your mind to wander is an inefficient use of your time, Dr Pillay explains that your brain wanders multiple times a day. So, instead of letting it run rampant, you can harness it to actually benefit your brain.
"What people don't realise is it's not as random as it sounds. The part of the brain that's responsible for guiding and navigation actually gives your mind some data about which way to go and that's how people make a sudden discovery or realisation."
Part of harnessing the brain's natural propensity to wander is tinkering.
On a cognitive level, tinkering allows you to slowly build on an image or goal by playing with it in your mind. As you work on it, your brain's biology begins to change, turning on circuits in different regions of the brain, which then help develop new ideas, provide solutions to problems and create a greater understanding of self.
So how do you mentally tinker?
Dr Pillay explains that when you first create an image or a goal in your mind, the image may be weak or hard to define. By utilising a few techniques, your image takes shape.
"You could imagine in the first person or in the third person, or you could imagine with sounds and smells too. This kind of tinkering will enrich the mental movie you're making."
If the idea of dabbling in an area in which you have little or no knowledge seems counter-intuitive to your goals, Dr Pillay gives countless examples of successful people, including Einstein and Picasso, who dabbled in areas outside their scope of expertise, which ultimately led to their success.
He also cites the example of a young Steve Jobs, who quit college but remained in one class only: calligraphy.
The Apple Inc co-founder didn't see any relevance to his foreseeable future in studying calligraphy. However, it was his dabbling in this art that led to the creation of the typefonts unique to Macintosh computers.
"None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography," Jobs is quoted as saying in the biography, Steve Jobs.
While it may seem like a mundane and irrelevant activity, doodling has been shown to activate parts of the brain associated with memory.
A study by Jackie Andrade published in the journal Cognitive Psychology described an experiment in which a group of people were told a long and rather boring story.
Half of them were asked to doodle and colour random shapes while the other half were not allowed to doodle. After the story was told, the study participants had to recall the names of eight people and eight places mentioned in the story.
The people who doodled could recall 29 per cent more detail than those who didn't doodle.
Jackie explains the reason for this could be that when simply listening to the story, listeners were more likely to fall into a daydream state. On the other hand, doodling may have facilitated a deeper processing of the information by reducing daydreaming (of the unplanned kind).
Numerous studies have shown that daytime napping is an excellent way to reinvigorate your brain.
The question that inevitably arises is 'How long should I nap for'? Dr Pillay says this depends on your goal. If you want to increase your alertness, he recommends taking a 10-minute nap only.
However, if your goal is to increase creativity or try to come up with an innovative solution to a problem, he recommends taking a 90-minute nap.
He says the reason for the considerably longer nap time required for creativity is because 90 minutes is when your brain usually enters a REM sleep state, which is the state in which it makes smart associations.
If you're unsure where to begin, use the table below as a guide. It may seem counter-intuitive to take a break when you're already stretched for time, but Dr Pillay believes that doing so will actually increase your productivity, alertness and creativity.
See below for a sample day.
6.00 - 7.00 Morning meditation activity: Use mindfulness or transcendental meditation. Alternative: Go on a walking meditation (while letting your mind wander)
7.00 - 10.00 Work and chores
10.00 - 10.30 First tinker break: Walk with possibility thinking - ask: 'What do i want?' 'What if it were possible?' 'What have other successful people in my position done?'
10.30 - noon Work and chores
Noon - 1.00 Lunch
1.10 - 3.00 Work and chores
3.00 - 3.15 Positive constructive daydreaming: Choose a safe spot in which to daydream. Start with wishful, playful imagery (close you eyes, wander)
3.15 - 5.00 Work and chores
5.00 - 5.15 Reframing time. Ask: 'What was the best part of my day?'
5.15 - bedtime End of day activities
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