My older son is an unapologetic daydreamer. He occasionally catches a scolding for his distant, unfocused gaze. But the last time he took heat for daydreaming during middle school, he came home and explained it to me this way: "Mom, I don't know why, but I just have to do that sometimes."
It's tough to argue with the kid. I understand. To function best, to engage fully, to contribute meaningfully, he does have to do that sometimes. No one knows that better than I -- a chronically multitasking writer whose best ideas, biggest breakthroughs and greatest revelations consistently come when I'm not looking for them.
My trick is that I tend to be running when it happens. Or driving with the music blasting. Or reading something purely for pleasure. Or doing yoga. I look busy (isn't that the key?), but I'm mentally untethered in a way that allows me to actually think -- that lets my mind stretch and breathe and just be for a little while.
In December, during an after-work run, a friend described to me the truly confounding logistics of her holiday travels. We were coming over the Walnut Street Bridge, breathing hard, feet drumming the boards, heat rising around us into the cold air. I was listening (I swear) while she puzzled aloud, and as she finished her story I blurted out, "I've got it."
"You've got it? You've got my travel plans figured out?"
"No, sorry," I clarified. "I just solved a work problem that's been worrying me. I wasn't even thinking about it, and the solution just fell into my head."
"That's the key," she said. "You weren't thinking about it."
We all understand this. There's no shortage of great stories about ideas springing to life during idle and unguarded moments, no lack of acknowledgement that downtime has palpable value. But this world will take as much as you will give it. It will never stop asking for more. So it takes real willpower to push away from the email, to close down the Twitter feed, to turn off the ringer and create space for unstructured thought.
And if you can do those things in pursuit of another thing, that helps the perception problem. If, for example, you can tell people you're going for a run, they're far less likely to object than if you say, "I'm going to make myself totally unavailable, empty my mind completely and see what happens. Go away now, please."
For similar reasons, my husband is a big believer in the power of 15 minutes of sleep. When he's dragging and feeling stuck, he has an uncanny ability to sit down, sleep for 15 minutes, then wake up feeling completely restored and mentally sharp. It helps that he works from home. But I think it also helps that he has a way of describing this inactivity that jokingly implies he's quite busy.
"I'm checking my eyelids for cracks," he deadpans.
We need to come up with a similar one-liner for our daydreaming middle-schooler. He's testing his distance vision? Practicing for a staring contest? Maybe I'll go running and accidentally come up with a brilliant cover story for him.
Contact Mary Fortune at thirtytensomething.blogspot.com.