Writing and the Creative Life: The Virtues of Spacing Out and Goofing Off

Scott Myers
3 min readNov 3, 2017

Finally, science is good for something! Spacing out rules!

Think the key to creativity is 100% total focus and hard work? Think again. Stanford based psychologist Emma Seppälä promotes the idea learning how to “unfocus” as means of promoting creativity:

We believe that the opposite of focus — daydreaming, goofing off, spacing out — is to be avoided. Worse yet, having problems focusing is seen as an obstacle to overcome and even as pathological. Self- help books and productivity bloggers strive to keep us on task with advice and hacks.

When we fail to come up with the results we were hoping for, we wonder whether we just aren’t working or concentrating hard enough. We’ve come to consider focus and being on as “good,” and idleness — especially if it goes on for too long — as “bad” and unproductive. We feel guilty if we spend too much time doing nothing.

But in thinking this way, we make a fundamental mistake.

Truly successful people don’t come up with great ideas through focus alone. They are successful because they make time to not concentrate and to engage in a broad array of activities like playing golf. As a consequence, they think inventively and are profoundly creative: they develop innovative solutions to problems and connect dots in brilliant ways.

I don’t need science to tell me this. I daydream and space out a lot. And yes, some of my best ideas or solutions to story problems arise from those unfocused moments.

Seppälä offers three tips to engender creativity by not working at it:

Diversify your activities

Experts suggest that the key to being idle or to unfocusing is to diversify our activities rather than being constantly focused on a single task. To get a new perspective on something, we actually need to disengage from it. We can diversify in two ways: through mindless tasks or through a broader set of experiences.

To disengage through unfocused tasks, break up time spent assimilating information and working on a task by inserting fifteen- minute periods of more mindless and less focused activity, like taking a shower or going for a quick walk (without concentrating on your cell phone) or doing some stretching.

Make time for stillness and silence

Given how busy modern life is, we can think of stillness and silence as another “diversifying” experience. Rather than being in motion and rushing from one place to the next, we are still. Rather than doing something, we do nothing. Rather than focusing on things, we completely unplug. Meditation is an obvious example of cultivating stillness or silence.

Invite fun back into your life

Filling idle time with fun and games is a natural part of children’s lives. However, though engaging in playful activities for the sake of having fun exists in the animal kingdom (to which anyone with a pet can attest), it is completely neglected in human adulthood. We are the only adult mammals who do not make time for play, outside of highly structured settings like a Sunday neighborhood soccer game or playtime with a child.

I know one Hollywood writer who practices at least one of these techniques: Aaron Sorkin takes up to 8 showers a day to stimulate his creativity.

So here’s to daydreaming, goofing off, and spacing out, one set of keys to enhancing creative inspiration.

For the rest of Seppälä’s article, go here.