The Importance of Earnest Daydreaming

Because I can’t be working on Lord Casriel’s happily ever after with Lady Canmore every waking hour, I’m also reading a nice little book, The Net and the Butterfly, by a couple of clever people whose topic is, “The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.” This is related to my last reading project–Iconoclast–which had to do with thinking new thoughts and solving old problems with new solutions.

The breakthrough thought is also usually a solution to a problem, or an insight about the way forward. I need a lifetime supply of these if I am to write interesting fiction, but such thoughts also come in handy when trying to decide whether to sell the house or which car I should get when my 10-year-old Prius dies.

The book explains that we have two ways of attacking our mental goals. One is through the executive network. This is the conscious pondering, parsing, studying, debating, and information gathering…. all the stuff you do when you’re faced with a decision or given a challenge. This is “using your smarts.” The other resource we have is the “default network,” which hums along quietly in the background.

The two networks cannot both be in high gear simultaneously. If we’re deploying all of our firepower on executive tasks, the default network, which operates below the level of conscious thought, has to stand down. The default network swings into action when the executive network has downed tools. That happens while we load the dishwasher, fold clothes, go for a walk, drop off to sleep, or stand around waiting for the guy to find our dry cleaning.

When an idea “pops into your head” as you squeeze the shampoo into your palm or water the plants, your default network has been given enough time and resources to produce a solution for your executive network to implement.

What I got from that little description of cognitive functioning was two insights: First, it’s important to build “idle tasks” into my day if I’m trying to puzzle out a plot, develop a convincing character arc, or make a big career decision. In fact, workers carrying a heavy cognitive or creative load are most productive when they do have frequent breaks or their assignments throughout the day vary between the brainiac and mundane.

Second, there is such a thing as thinking too hard about a problem. The default network excels at finding patterns the executive will never spot, at seeing similarities and metaphors  the hyperfocused executive could never connect. If I’m to come up with the best stories, over and over, it’s imperative that I build in that most critical period for any successful mind: RECESS.

Have you ever gotten a “bolt from the blue” insight? Ever wrestled with a big problem only to have the solution drop into your head while you were vacuuming? How does your day include recess, or how could it? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed Advanced Reader Copy of My Own and Only Duke.

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13 comments on “The Importance of Earnest Daydreaming

  1. My day includes recess. I start with a cup of coffee, a cookie and the morning news. I stop whatever the day has been around 7:00 pm. And I have “me” time Sunday afternoon.

    I have great ideas in the shower. More come at church before the service starts. Long distance drives provide a few more. Reading history illustrates that the stories are not new, and stranger than fiction, too.

    I find starting at the desired ending and working forward is helpful for me, especially when overwhelmed.

  2. I try to balance my day to mix up the type of tasks so I do get a nice mix of both types of thinking. When my schedule and the weather permit, I try to get go for a short walk outside partway through the day. I find that to be so important to give me fresh air as well as an opportunity to clear my mind. Sometimes while out on my walks (and listening to whatever audio book I’ve got currently playing), I’ll have insight to something that I’d been working on that day or the day before.

  3. Recess is important. During the week I take my 2 fifteen minute breaks and take time to read or send a quick text. I walk or read during my lunch.

    The time away from problem
    Solving resets me. I have figured out “how to” approach situations when putting dishes away, walking the dogs or playing fetch with Laci.
    Sometimes the answer was right in front of me and I wasn’t aware of it!

    I hope your figure Castriel out- I loved Bea!
    And I preordered the book.

  4. I have found that if I describe the problem out loud to an uninterested party I often have an idea of a solution by the time I finish describing it. I have no idea why saying it (and not writing it or any other medium of communication or organization) helps, and why having no expectation of input from the listener is the magic formula, but it often works for those problems where I had been going around in circles in my mind. Using a different part of the brain maybe? Also brainstorming in general I find more productive if I do it verbally with or without an audience.

  5. My life and profession can be broken down into the two portions you mention; the *thinking&*and then the *doing*. I never really thought of it the way you describe except that’s the way it works.

    I spend time between my rehearsal/concert cycles thinking about repertoire–actually refining the repertoire I decided 18 months before. Rehearsals start and then that’s what I’m doing, the nuts and bolts and day to day. The period between the two concert cycles are summer and then winter holidays so that’s when I relax, enjoy my family and think and dream. I need those down times; I spruce up the house and garden and stare out at the fireflies in the evening.

    The few times I’ve been forced to not have this natural break time (right after my father-in-law’s death and right after my mother’s death) were more difficult than I imagined. It wasn’t easy to go about my business of rehearsals and I felt flustered and not as organized as usual. Both times–both deaths were expected and of cancer–I thought I should have been better prepared to carry on. After thinking about it, I can’t imagine how I could have averted the emotions of losing someone I love and then having to jump right back in with hardly a break.

    I did choose one of the best repertoires under time pressure after my Mom died; music inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. One of the best concerts, with interesting music but it came to me because I HAD to get it in for PR! Sometimes, that’s how it works!

  6. Sometimes I will solve a problem while I am walking during lunch, or when I sleep on it. Play dates are also helpful, going to a museum by myself, blowing bubbles, and playing with a hoola-hoop in the front yard.

  7. As I schedule dental surgery, I’m learning the toll illness and protracted infection take on both thought processes. Sometimes a nap is an absolute necessity for mental function to occur at all and creativity is the first to suffer.

  8. Maybe it’s because I am elderly now and have to listen to my flagging body that I’ve introduced several recess slots during my day.I would not admit to be old and having to slow up until these last few weeks and during this continuous heatwave.I collapsed whilst waiting for a bus and bashed my head and arm ,I ended up in A and E at the local hospital.There I was thoroughly checked out and treated for dehydration and given a lecture about being old and making sure I had a bottle of water and a hat with me.I felt a right nerd!!.My daughter also got her speech in telling me off for not thinking about taking care of myself in this heat.So I came home feeling quite jaded.I love being outside ,I love being busy I enjoy doing different things but I suppose I must be sensible and consider that I am getting older and make a few subtle changes like____include more recess time.When I get even older and have to give up what I enjoy in my life I will be a very sad person but I do have a family that care so I am blessed.Life and the NET and the BUTTERFLY and so it goes on.Finding solutions for many difficult and challenging situations.We get there in the end.

    • Brenda, this happens to young people, too. Our son is 24. You just don’t get up as quickly! Take care, stay cool.

  9. Hubs has started a new job. At new job they encourage 20 percent projects, which to put plainly is a project just for fun. It’s not a deadline project. It’s a project that is there to tinker with, to fool around with because it is intriguing. And some of the companies most successful ventures started as 20 percent projects.

    It made me wonder maybe I am missing something by approaching my writing as a one book at one time venture. I want to finish projects. A lot is learned by finishing, but… I think I’m loosing some sparks going about it this way too.

  10. I’m not the best sleeper, never have been but the older I’ve gotten the more importance I place on a few extra sleep minutes during the middle of the day. I’m blessed to be able to work from home, so I can build it into my schedule. Some of of my toughest problems have been worked out during that ” quasi sleep sorta awake” period. Some really tough things, too. I’ve benefited too much from giving my mind a break to not to nurture it.

  11. I often find myself thinking of solutions to issues during that strange time just before I fall asleep. I used to try to force myself to remember whatever it was that I thought of, but I found that that forced me into wakefulness.

    Now I keep my old iphone on my night stand, and send myself an email with whatever the important idea might be. This prevents me from worrying that I will forget this (brilliant) idea.

    The funniest part is that often when I wake up and check my email, I am surprised to see the email from myself. I had forgotten that I had sent it, and probably would have forgotten the idea if I had not written it down.

    Back in the days when I was working as a librarian, I used to leave myself voice messages at work with ideas, solutions, etc.

    There was many a day when I opened my office door, saw the message light flashing on the phone, and was surprised to find that *I* had left the message!