Riding the subway home the other day I caught myself daydreaming. It was a wonderful feeling. The rattling of the train, the faces and the sounds around me ... all of them slipped away as my brain turned in on itself. I felt my ideas start to wander. I felt the joy of discovery, watching where my brain roamed free of my own judgement, free to just be.
I used to daydream all the time. I was known for it back in high school in Australia. I remember sitting cross-legged in a circle of girlfriends. Everyone would be talking and I would zone out. My friends knew the look — my gaze went distant, my eyes stopped blinking.
“Amelia, where have you gone?”
They waved their hands in front of my face. I still didn’t blink.
“Hang on a second,” I said. “Okay, I’m back.”
It was a running joke, it happened so often.
And yet, these days I hardly ever daydream. It was almost a shock when it happened to me on the subway here in New York. As adults I guess we just don’t have the time. We’re so busy getting through our to-do lists, sludging through stuff at work, meeting with clients, replying to emails, checking our phones, racing home and trying to get food on the table, working through personal setbacks or family matters … somewhere in the midst of it all we lose the ability to lay back and let go.
This, of course, is part of my job as a creative leadership coach. When I spend time with clients, the goal is to help them reconnect and dig down into their core values, passions and motivations in life. By reconnecting with these core strengths, we find fresh perspectives on our lives and build authentic plans for the present and the future. We can, in short, become the creative leaders that we want to be.
Trouble is, no one has time to work on themselves in one-on-one leadership sessions all the time. We can’t constantly be in a therapist’s chair talking through our lives, just as we can’t spend all day in a yoga studio or tucked away meditating in a dimly lit room. It would be nice, but we have to go about our lives. Our busy, busy lives.
That’s where daydreaming can be helpful. We can do it anywhere anytime. By spacing out for a moment we give our brains time to pause and recharge — which in turn can lead us to some of our best “aha” moments.
Rarely do we solve problems by staring at a white board for so long that our eyes start to hurt. We turn away, we notice the clouds, we see the sunlight filtering through the avenues of the city. Aha!
That’s how epiphanies work. So many leaders get their best ideas that way.
5 Simple Steps to Daydream
Ever since I had that daydream on the subway, I’ve been trying to daydream more often — reminding myself of the practice. The truth is that sometimes daydreaming happens to us, free of our control, but we can also facilitate the process so that it happens more regularly and we reap the benefits.
The first step is to acknowledge that it’s okay to zone out. It’s okay to forget about your phone. I promise, you’ll survive! Forget about social media, emails, what your boss or your spouse is up to. Let it all go, look up and out at the world around you.
Focus on one detail
Our brains are terrific at drifting off — especially when we want to focus on something. The harder we try to focus, the further afield our brains seem to go. I like to physically look at something and try to train my eyes on it until my vision goes blurry. I stop blinking. I calm down. I escape.
Movement is key. It’s no coincidence that I was daydreaming on the subway. Images slip past us, lulling our brains into a trance. Walking, riding a bike, and going for a run are all ways to help daydreaming happen.
As you move from one idea to the next, don’t judge. Being in a non-judgemental place is a prerequisite for daydreaming. Sometimes I have my clients write a stream of consciousness for five to ten minutes. When they finish, they’re not allowed to read it. In fact, I have them put it in the trash to keep them from judging and analyzing. The point is to get your brain moving and watch your ideas transform before you. That's all that matters.
Keep the good stuff
Have a journal or create a note on your phone. Anytime an idea comes to you during your daydreaming, jot it down. You never know where these notes might lead you at a later date. After that subway ride the other day, I wrote a note on my phone. It pointed out that maybe I could start a blog that harnesses some of my mental wanderings for good. The first post, I noted, could be about the power of daydreaming. Talk about an “aha” moment!
Amelia Kruse is a Certified Leadership Coach based in New York City.