Tune Out to Tune In

Advice from professors Malia Mason and William Duggan on making the most of mind-wandering during summer vacation.

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Based on research by William Duggan and Malia Mason
Photo by Pixabay.com

Malia Mason recently traveled to Bermuda with her fiancĂ© to enjoy sun and surf. She came away with much more: a flash of insight. By virtue of sitting on the beach, digging her toes in the sand, and staring at the lapping waves, the associate professor of management thought up a raft of new and ambitious ideas and goals for her career and life. 

But did Mason really need to fly 775 miles to an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to find those ideas?

There’s something about vacations that can spark a person’s creativity and inspire big thoughts. Mason and her colleague, Senior Lecturer William Duggan, have invested years of research into the question of how we reach flashes of insight and its connection to mind-wandering — with takeaways for getting more out of your next vacation.

Tune out the Noise

According to Mason and Duggan, who co-wrote the chapter “Strategic Intuition” for the Handbook of Intuition Research (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2011), daydreaming in a prolonged moment of reflection puts the brain in a relaxed state with relatively slow, rhythmic electrical activity that increases one’s ability to generate a novel solution — which is partly why Mason had those insights at the Bermuda beach. High stress and heightened anxiety decreases originality and mental fluidity, and also hinders our ability to retrieve memories.

But there’s more to productive mind-wandering than just relaxed daydreaming; it has to be the right kind of daydreaming. This poses a unique challenge for managers and other professionals who are juggling numerous tasks in unstructured work schedules. Mason says these people are more prone to be constantly asking themselves, “Wait, is there something I should be doing other than what I am currently doing?”

“I think this makes us stressed and distractible and prone to superficial thinking,” says Mason, who directs the Behavioral Research Lab at the Business School. “One might suggest that most of us generally turn this background-checking and monitoring off when we are on vacation. And I can believe that by doing so we can be more thoughtful. We suddenly have the patience to let the mind explore big ideas. It gets easier to adopt a big-picture perspective.”

For this reason, women might especially benefit from vacations, according to new research from Mason. In a forthcoming paper to be published in Motivation Science, she and co-authors Elizabeth Moulton-Tetlock of Columbia University and Janet N. Ahn and Elizabeth L. Haines of William Paterson University find that women exert greater mental effort than men to recall outstanding goals for which other people are beneficiaries. Whether it’s remembering that the laundry needs to be cleaned, that the dog needs a vet appointment, or that the fridge needs milk, it’s not just the physical doing of these tasks but also the mental self-reminding that takes a toll. 

“Women risk being mentally taxed by boosting the productivity of others,” according to the study, titled “Women’s Work: Remembering Communal Goals.” “One might also expect there to be downstream consequences to becoming saddled with this mnemonic activity in the form of stress, or diminished life and relationship satisfaction, or burnout.”

Consider the task of preparing dinner, says Mason. Aside physically cooking the pasta, you must also remember to pick up spaghetti sauce on the way home from work, and this outstanding goal is likely to hijack your attention during the day: Out of nowhere, you’ll suddenly be thinking about Ragu.

A vacation can free the mind from that kind of mental labor. Day to day, Mason adds, she is wary of allowing her own “prospective memory” to be filled with trivial to-dos that do nothing to forward her career or life goals. 

“Vacation might be a time when you’re not thinking of that stuff in the background or those responsibilities,” she says, “so your mind is free to focus on what’s important.”

Ditch the Phone

Even if you go all the way to Bermuda, it’ll be hard to really get away if your smartphone goes with you, says Duggan. In his recent book, The Seventh Sense: How Flashes of Insight Change Your Life (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2015), Duggan highlights how the smartphone is engineered to draw our constant attention, which overwhelms our background mental activity. Research shows that even if your smartphone is off, your mind can’t help but constantly think about the device.

Duggan believes the smartphone has become the biggest obstacle to productive mind-wandering — which is why he doesn’t own or carry any type of mobile device. Duggan recommends leaving the smartphone home not just when you go on vacation, but also during regular activities such as when you go to the gym or eat a meal, if you want the benefits of mind-wandering.

“Make sure that you’re off your phone and truly relaxed and that your mind is not occupied,” Duggan advises. “Also, when you observe something that strikes you, pay attention to it because you now want that on the shelves of your memory.”

Duggan cites a 1983 trip to Milan made by a 30-year-old named Howard Schultz. Schultz wandered into a coffee bar, ordered an espresso, sipped it alongside other Italians at the counter. Later that day, Schultz visited another charming espresso bar, where he had the revelation to restructure his Seattle-based coffee-roasting business as an Italian-style espresso bar.

“And that’s how Starbucks started,” says Duggan. “If he’d been on his phone, if he’d been looking at his agenda, if he hadn’t been relaxed and letting his mind just wander around, the idea wouldn’t have struck him.”

Duggan, who is co-authoring a forthcoming book called The Art of Ideas with Amy Murphy ’12, notes that the founder of Starbucks made time to stroll into a coffee shop twice on that fateful day, underscoring how big ideas and creative insights are less likely to hit when we’re harried and rushing from one task to the next appointment — and more likely when we’re silently drinking an espresso or sitting on a beach in Bermuda.

“Everybody knows that you get your best ideas when you’re relaxed,” he says. “It’s literally when your minding is wandering, when your mind is roving.”

About the researcher

Malia Mason

Malia Mason studies negotiations and social judgment and decision making in one line of work. In a second, she studies how people regulate their...

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About the researcher

William Duggan

William Duggan is the author of three recent books on innovation: Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement (2007); Creative Strategy: A Guide for...

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