When we're not being overtly productive, when we're daydreaming, chasing random links on the internet, or looking out of the window, are we just wasting time? Sociologist Christine Carter says no, in an interview with the Washington Post:
When we are focused on something, or using our willpower to do something, the task-positive attentional network is on. What’s off is the task negative – the mind wandering, daydreaming, what most people tend to think is the “time wasting” mode. So all the great work we do in the world, we give credit to the task-positive brain. We assume it takes a lot of self-discipline and willpower to just muscle through. We write books. We build bridges. We raise children. That’s what our culture told us to focus on – human output, like the factory model. But it’s actually not true.
When you let your mind wander, the task- negative brain becomes active. All those neurons start making connections between things you didn’t see before, and it’s all happening at an unconscious level...We can’t write books without the insights that come from that downtime. We can’t fulfill our potential without filling our need for creative insight, and nurturing our ability to draw connections...It’s a cliché, but, think about it, we often get our best ideas in the shower! Also reading poetry, painting, reading a novel, fiction – all of these things help us draw connections, become more empathetic.
Probably this is something you knew intuitively but it's good to have it confirmed. It also means that it makes sense to build some of this task-negative time into any project you're planning.
People often ask me whether I write every day. I don't, and it's partly because I've learned the value of sometimes letting a bit of time go by because what I write after a brief break often seems richer than what I produce if I'm pushing myself. Of course it's possible to overdo that and let it become an excuse for laziness, which I've also experienced!