We all daydream. We all spend hundreds hours in a pleasantly zonked state, weaving stories about our future successes. As a small kid, my favorite daydream was winning a gold medal at the Olympics. I was a little hazy as to precisely which event — track, maybe? — but I could hear the anthem playing, and feel the weight of the gold medal around my neck.
Science has weighed in, leaving no doubt that daydreaming can be a good thing for our brains. The deeper question is, are some daydreams more useful than others, when it comes to producing motivation and real-world results? In other words, is there a smarter way to daydream?
We get a fascinating answer from Top Dog, a terrific new book about the science of competition by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (which comes out on Feb 19th, and which you should pre-order right now). Here’s the takeaway: daydreaming works best when you focus both on the goal and on the obstacles between you and the goal.
In other words, you shouldn’t daydream about the payoff, but about the whole process.
For example: one scientist studied German children about to learn English. Some students fantasized only about the benefits they’d get (“I’ll make my father proud!” “I’ll talk to the members of my favorite American band!”), while others fantasized about both the barriers and the benefits. After a semester, the first group averaged a C grade; the second averaged an A.
Another scientist studied hip-replacement patients. Some patients daydreamed about all the wonderful stuff they’d do after surgery, like running marathons and dancing; others focused on the fear, pain and difficulty of recovery as well as the benefits. After surgery, the second group had significantly more mobility and less pain.
Why? The peril of high expectations. Our brains are easily seduced by the sweetness of anticipated benefits — which means that we get demoralized by any setbacks — wait, this isn’t what’s supposed to happen! Obstacle/benefit daydreaming, on the other hand, prepares you emotionally and tactically for the challenge ahead.
One nice way to apply this idea is the Zander Letter — named after the music educator Benjamin Zander. It works like this: before he begins teaching a new class, Zander asks the students to take out a sheet of paper, date it three months in the future, and title it: I Succeeded in this Class Because… In the letter, they’re asked to detail the concrete steps they will take that leads to their success.
I like this method, because it can be applied to just about any project, and because it puts the learner in the right mindset for effective daydreaming. They can’t just focus on the seductive sweetness of the outcome. They also have to figure out exactly how they’re going to get there.