It’s Okay to Stare

Imagine stopping in the middle of a busy work day, kicking up your feet on your desk, sitting back, arms cradling the back of the head in daydream mode. Now imagine that this is one of the best things you could do in the course of a busy work day.

It’s okay, let them stare. Because the truth is that your blank stare at the wall is just what the mind needs to slow down, clear out some of the clutter and give the creative brain the opportunity to open up to better thinking, greater creativity and maybe even the next big idea.

The Ire of Idle Hands

Corporate America isn’t built to accommodate dreamers. Traditionally, it’s been all about the volume of work. In this world quantity rules. Idle hands are tools of the devil, remember? Yes, but they’re also a sign of creativity at work. A Wired article about the productivity enhancing merits of Twitter and Facebook argued that, “regularly stepping back from the project at hand can be essential to success. And social networks are particularly well suited to stoking the creative mind.”

Great news, but little consolation when the boss chews you out for screwing around. If he knew what leading theorists in the field of creative intelligence knew he might just give you a nice daydream disrupting pat on the back.

It’s all about The Incubation Time

The creative process is kind of like applied mysticism. Ideas often come in a flash, out of nowhere and without warning even at the most unusual times – often times beyond the boundaries of 9 to 5 thinking.

Maybe this is because it’s only when we have traditionally been able to leave the office that our mind can relax and enter what is known as the incubation phase of the creative process. The incubation phase is where the aforementioned magic happens. During this time, “the preliminary ideas of the preparation stage are allowed to gestate for an unspecified period of time while the problem is not pursued consciously. The culmination of the incubation process is the explosive stage of illumination.” (Source: The Encyclopedia of Creativity, VOL II, pg. 676, Academic Press, 1999)

Sounds like “down time” to me. Here, too, is the origins of the coveted Aha! moment. Just one and you could be on your way to bigger and better things in your career. And all it takes is a little inactivity. Just a few cautious moments to let the mind do what it does best: create.

Go ahead…stare

Now that we’ve all seen the merits of stepping back, staring at a wall or computer screen and letting the creative wheels turn a bit, let’s talk about how to do this at work without getting talked about or tossed out before that Aha! moment happens.

For starters, remember that we have more opportunities to engage the idea generating part of the brain than we realize. And, the most important part is to get the idea in there and let it grow. The subconscious mind will take care of the rest. The problem is that we allow for very few gaps in our thinking. We’re conditioned to keep it filled with worries, concerns, fantasies and the latest water cooler gossip. Why not give it a rest?

Getting back to the Wired story on social networks and productivity, this is why there is a counterintuitive workplace benefit to measured social networking. That next tweet or Facebook can provide that gap and may just fan the creative flames to solve the next big problem at work (mind you, you can go wrong when using social networks at work as well).

Don’t Try This at Home, Use it at Work

As you can see, screwing around a bit at work has the potential to make you the most productive, creative and dynamic mind in your office. Here are a few simple ways – among others – to get started staring blankly into the vast depths of possibility:

  1. Make Your Next Break Just That – When we get breaks during the day, even if it’s for just a few minutes, we have this tendency to fill it with random busyness. Instead, take a few breaths, close your eyes and let the mind just go. You might be surprised where it ends up.
  2. The Extended Water Break – Take a few extra moments during the next water break and go for a quick walk. Try to walk mindfully and use the stroll to empty the head. If there’s a problem to solve, let it rest there during this time. This is one way to begin the incubation process.
  3. Find White Space – Turn away form the computer screen for a few minutes and just stare at the wall. Before you do, take a few deep mindful breaths. Relax your shoulders a bit. Now, just let the mind rest. Repeat as needed.
  4. Be A Lunch Loner – Lunch is a great time gossip with coworkers, an opportunity to run a few errands and if you’re determined to have the next big idea, it’s also great time to open the mind. Why not bring a lunch, get out of the office, find a quiet place and just disengage a bit?

You are now fully prepared to step back just enough that those great ideas and insights of yours have a fighting chance at work. Because the truth is that the next great idea can come from anywhere. You’re just as capable as anyone. Make it happen.

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Coe Douglas is a recovering advertising agency creative director and occasional music video director. He currently works as a freelance writer and brand strategist, helping companies find their voice and tell their story. He blogs and lives online at


  1. Steve on the 8th June

    Great article. I remember when Walter Lantz, creator of Woody Woodpecker died, reading a quote from him in obituary. It said something very close to this: “It took me a long time to convince my wife that when I was staring out the window, I was working. Once she understood that, everything was good.”

  2. C.C. Chapman on the 8th June

    I’ve always believed in this and it was great to see you write it out so others can take it to heart.

    Idle time is so critical and yet so few of us make time for it.

  3. Cesare on the 8th June

    Can I stare at the sea instead of the wall? 🙂

  4. Peter North on the 8th June

    I imagine Google has such fun-looking rooms in their offices specifically to get as many “Aha!” moments as possible. At a places like Google, those bursts of creativity could turn into something huge.

    • Cesare on the 8th June

      A fussball would be enough for me … Well also three more people to play with 🙂

  5. Coe Douglas on the 8th June

    Imagine if businesses universally had ideation rooms. We’d all be better and more productive for it.

    I’ve worked as a creative in my career so we always encouraged thought time.
    Yet even in supposedly creative industries there is a tendency to expect immediate results without an appreciation for the process that is often the catalyst for those results.

    Cesare – I wish I had a sea to peer out into. You’re a lucky guy. : )

  6. I agree with the article.

    But for some, their minds tell them that ‘you are wasting your time’.

    Their mind does not let them think creatively.

    As life has become so fast, their mind is always in a state of ‘working’ and ‘thinking’.

    I would include myself in this list, as I have tried what you said. It is really great ONCE I actually do it, but my mind does not actually let me do it, as I keep thinking: ‘I have to utilize my time to the fullest’.

    But I know that if I just stare at the wall, and actually take a break from the laptop, I can think creatively.


  7. hmon on the 8th June

    This theory fits in with the idea that an inspired employee will create a productive, passionate culture which is the heart of a companies brand.

  8. Omar Abid on the 8th June

    I disagree Social Media and sites like Facebook can boost your productivity. Actually, they completely ruin it. Facebook can consume lot of time and controlling yourself while watching videos or if you were caught up chatting with a friend is almost impossible.

    Put shit in the bin and get some work done!

  9. Coe Douglas on the 8th June

    Hmon – Excellent point. Culture is another often overlooked part of great companies. Some of the most productive businesses have at their foundation truly inspired cultures. From such cultures ideas flourish. These same cultures also unanimously encourage a bit of play and opportunities to think. (Zappos, Google, others?)

    My experience has shown me that fun and genuine culture building can reap huge rewards in terms of productivity and results.

    It’s not all about being chained to a desk.

  10. Mimi on the 27th September

    Did you guys know that Michelangelo just stared at a block of marble for months to create David? For him that was work. I guess the same principle is applies here.

  11. Kaiden on the 3rd August

    Wow, that’s a really clever way of tihiknng about it!

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