Albert Einstein’s breakthrough moments often came via thought experiments in which he let his imagination drift.
What would it be like to travel as fast as a light beam?
What happens if double lightning strikes are observed from different perspectives?
Einstein is admittedly a pretty high bar, but zoning out can help mere mortals, too.
Research published in 2021 found that tricky work-related problems sparked more daydreaming among professional employees, and that this daydreaming in turn boosted creativity.
In similar vein, going for a walk is not just a break from work, but can be a form of it.
An experiment from 2014 asked participants to think of creative uses for a common object (a button, say) while sitting down and while walking.
Perambulation was associated with big increases in creativity.
Being outside generally seems to improve lateral thinking.
In another study, hikers who had been yomping away in the wilderness did much better on a problem-solving task than those who had yet to set off.
Loafing has clear limits.
If you miss a deadline because you were staring soulfully out of the window, you still missed a deadline.
Not every problem requires a backpack and a journey into the countryside.
If you don’t much like your work in the first place, you are likely to daydream about other things.
But time to muse is valuable in virtually every role.
To take one example, customer-service representatives can be good sources of ideas on how to improve a company’s products, but they are often rated on how well they adhere to a schedule of fielding calls.
Reflection is not part of the routine.
The post-pandemic rethink of work is focused on "when" and "where" questions.
Firms are experimenting with four-day workweeks as a way to improve retention and avoid burnout.
Asynchronous working is a way for individuals to collaborate at times that suit them.
Lots of thought is going into how to make a success of hybrid work.
The "what is work" question gets much less attention.
The bias towards familiar forms of activity is deeply entrenched.
But if you see a colleague meandering through the park or examining the ceiling for hours, don’t assume that work isn’t being done.
What looks like idleness may be the very moment when serendipity strikes.