Daydream Believers

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How performing undemanding tasks can kick-start your creativity.

The next time you are facing a day of housework or an afternoon of raking, consider this: A new study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, shows that slightly boring tasks that allow your mind to wander can jump-start creativity.

Researchers tested their theory by asking 145 college students to dream up unusual uses for objects like toothpicks and clothes hangers. Then, during a 12-minute break, they were either assigned to a difficult memory exercise or an undemanding memory exercise, asked to sit quietly, or directed to skip the break entirely. The findings, published in Psychological Science (August 2012), show that when asked to devise additional uses for the objects following the 12-minute break, participants who’d been assigned to the undemanding task (one that let their minds drift) scored 41 percent better overall than the other groups.

“Mind-wandering may metaphorically stir the creative pot, causing the mind to jump from one idea to the next, and in so doing encourage unconscious associations,” explains Jonathan Schooler, PhD, professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara. But if you’re too bored, the magic doesn’t happen. “When individuals were given nothing to do, the benefits were less,” he explains. “There seems to be a sweet spot of task demandingness.”

The next time you have a problem and need a creative solution, engage in a task that will let your thoughts drift. “Nondemanding activities can be helpful in encouraging creative incubation,” says Schooler. “A walk in the park, a quiet drive or gardening could all fit the bill.”

For more on the advantages of mental downtime, see “Take a Break.”

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