J.K. Rowling reads to children at the White House. If she had been reading instead of letting her mind wander, "Harry Potter" and this photo might not exist. (White House Photo)
Author J.K. Rowling might have been stuck on a train between Manchester and London, but her mind wasn’t. Instead, it was daydreaming the plot for the Harry Potter series, which would eventually become a multibillion-dollar franchise.
What did you do the last time you were stuck en route? Probably not that.
In preparation for our upcoming November feature, “Play to Learn,” which looks at the importance of fun-based learning, I talked to Brigid Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has Time.” She uses Rowling’s story and others to describe why people need to allow their minds to wander without a specific task to complete.
Schulte said there is neurological evidence that idleness allows parts of the brain to draw connections and remember things that it didn’t notice while busy working on a task.
“When the mind wanders, it scours through weak links and pays attention to them,” she said. “That’s when you get the pop of an idea. It’s been incubating, and you give it time to come up for air.”
Learning leaders should not tell employees outright that they need to be idle, Schulte said. Instead, they need to make a business case of it. In an innovation-based economy, creative thinking is a critical skill for success. Idleness boosts inventiveness, whether it’s on the clock or out of the office.
“You don’t have to spend your entire day being idle,” she said. “In the shower, just let your mind wander. When commuting, don’t turn on the radio or pick up the phone.”
That can be easier said than done. Whether it’s answering email on the way home from work or settling into a 25-level binge of Candy Crush, people who resort to using mobile devices deprive their brains of much-needed downtime.
“The worst thing you can do is expect workers to be on technology always so they never have time to concentrate, reflect or allow their minds to wander,” Schulte said. “That’s the road to burnout.”