This frowned upon activity can actually channel greater creativity at work

Since time immemorial managers and bosses have kept an eye out for lackadaisical, daydreaming employees. After all, if a worker’s mind is wandering while on the job, it can’t bode well for their employer.

Surprisingly, a new study from Washington University in St. Louis is challenging the notion that daydreaming at work isn’t always a bad idea. The research team at WUSL have found that daydreaming can foster serious on-the-job creativity if, and it’s a big if, the employee in question is actually engaged in and cares about their work. 

Conversely, if an employee isn’t stimulated or interested in their work then daydreaming will lead to more stereotypical results (drop in productivity, failure to meet deadlines).

All in all, the study’s authors conclude that daydreaming at work can be both an asset or a detriment, depending on the individual.

“Daydreaming can have significant upsides for one’s tendency to crack difficult challenges in new ways. This, however, presumes that people deeply care about the work they do, what attracted them to the profession in the first place,” says Markus Baer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Olin Business School, in a university release. “Daydreaming without this focus has significant downsides, which show up most directly in one’s overall performance ratings.”

Daydreaming is pretty much synonymous with laziness, but researchers believe their work “depicts daydreaming as a critical mechanism accounting for the connection between the type of work people do and the level of creativity they exhibit on the job.” 

For this study, daydreaming was defined as when one’s thoughts wander or disconnect from the task at hand or “stimulus environment.” Researchers made it a point to clarify that daydreaming is not the same situation as just becoming momentarily distracted or multitasking. 

That being said, there are different types of daydreams. The research team, which also included a colleague from Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile, studied two varieties of daydreaming specifically: problem-oriented daydreams, or thoughts loosely related to one’s immediate problems, and bizarre daydreams, which are typically much more random and nonsensical in general. Researchers say that bizarre daydreams often include thoughts that “might delight a writer of fantasy or science fiction.”

Across both of these daydream variations, it was discovered that workers reaped significant creative benefits from their daydreaming habits if they were “psychologically attached” to their profession. So, for people who both enjoy their day-to-day job and feel fulfilled by their career, daydreaming frequently jumpstarts creative and innovative ideas and thoughts related to the job’s responsibilities.

The research team conducted two experiments to come to these conclusions. Both were held in South America, and the first involved 169 professionals from a wide variety of industries. For that first experiment, participants were asked to write up daily, almost diary-like reports of all the challenges, setbacks, and tasks they encountered each workday. Employees also reported on if they had engaged in any of the two studied types of daydreaming, and if they had formulated any new ideas or solutions to their challenges.

The second experiment included 117 lower-level employees and 46 of their supervisors. This time, all the participants were working at technology consulting companies. This industry was chosen because tech employees usually have to be solution-oriented and creative on a day-to-day basis. Also, tech workers often identify strongly with their profession and career. Lower-level employees wrote up diaries just like the first experiment, but managers were also asked to rate their employees’ creativity as well.

“Conducting two different studies enabled us to test our hypotheses across a wide range of workers and triangulate our findings,” explains study co-author Erik Dane, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at Olin. “The methods and measures we adopted integrated cutting-edge techniques associated with studying creativity and daydreaming alike.”

These experiments revealed that workers are much more likely to start daydreaming when they encounter a particularly tricky or confusing problem at work. But, if the employee was engaged and cared about their job, those daydreams would result in a creativity boost.

Regarding concrete job performance, as long as an employee “identifies” with their profession, both bizarre and problem-oriented daydreams don’t seem to have any effect whatsoever on performance. If an employee is uninterested in his or her work, though, daydreaming will almost always lead to a decline in productivity.

“What this means is that daydreaming can boost creativity but does little to kill it; on the flip side, daydreaming does little to improve overall performance but can significantly reduce it,” comments Hector P. Madrid of Pontificia Universidad.

In light of these findings, the study’s authors contend that daydreaming shouldn’t be as universally looked down upon as it always has been within the professional world. First of all, it’s ludicrous to expect any employee to stay 100% focused on their work all the time. That’s, quite literally, impossible; previous research has found that the human mind wanders constantly throughout the day. Moreover, an integral ingredient to success in any venture is creativity, and daydreaming looks to be capable of helping with that.

The full study can be found here, published in the Academy of Management Journal.