Mobile devices help you get work done while away from your desk, but the energy needed to constantly process the deluge of information can have a bad effect on productivity in the long run. Compulsive use of the technology has usurped the very beneficial time we used to spend daydreaming.
"When we turn to our devices every time we get bored or find a break in the flow of work, we keep ourselves constantly processing new information. Being 'always on' like this can make us less productive because it can block the brain processes that occur when we let our minds wander," writes Josh Davis, director of research and lead professor at the NeuroLeadership Institute, in Harvard Business Review. "Neuroscience and psychology research show that mind-wandering facilitates creativity, planning, and putting off immediate desires in favor of future rewards. Each of those can be important for working effectively. Not many other things we do can have such a broad impact."
According to research in the journal Psychological Science, mind-wandering spurs what neuroscientists call "creative incubation." When you're stumped on a challenge, you need to engage your creative thinking. Picking up your smartphone and encountering a barrage of new information overwhelms your brain. But if you let your mind wander, it can subtly tackle the challenge by making connections you wouldn't be able to when actively thinking about things.
Think about where and when you get those breakthrough ideas, such as in the shower or relaxing over a beer. There is a reason why so many big ideas have been hatched during idle times.
"When we mentally drift to a new topic, our brains continue sorting out the tough challenge in the background. Tracking a lot of new information can interfere with that background mental work, limiting mind-wandering and blocking the incubation that leads to creative solutions," Davis writes.
Daydreaming helps your mind achieve new perspective, plan for the future, and break through walls in a way that focusing on the present can't. Researchers in Germany found that the brain's background processing helps people hold out for better opportunities, instead of just taking the next opportunity that pops up.
"During mind-wandering, you are capable of connecting with your longer-term goals and discovering new ways to think about these kinds of situations," Davis says.
So the next time you're stuck on something or can't make a decision, set your mind adrift and enjoy the ride for a few minutes. It may just help you be more productive and creative instead of being stuck in the weeds from concentrating on never-ending emails and calls.