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PhD Talk For AcademicTransfer: Letting Your Mind Wander For Research

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Letting your mind wander for research

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

Has it happened to you that the solution to a problem comes to you at the most unexpected moment? You can get a flash of insight in the shower, on your bike, or while waiting in line for your lunch. You may be surprised – after all, why doesn’t this inspiration come while you are working on this problem?

Our mind can work on problems in the background while we are busy doing other things. At that moment, other thinking processes churn in the back. While you are working on the problem directly, your mind works differently.

A book related to this topic is “Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self” by Manoush Zomorodi. Productive work and creative thinking are both cornerstones of research. So what can we do to actively pursue our ability to space out?

It turns out – we don’t need to do much at all. We need quality leisure time and the ability to let our mind wander. Here are a few ideas you can implement to let your thoughts run free.

  1. Go for a walk. Get moving to get your thoughts unstuck. There’s something particularly soothing about going for a walk for our mind. Compare your inner workings when going for a walk, a run, or biking around – for many of us, we find our ideal headspace in a walk.
  2. Do menial tasks without distractions. You may want to switch on the TV or a podcast while you fold your laundry or wash the dishes. Every now and then, just don’t switch on anything and let your thoughts run free while you get your chores done.
  3. Journal. While not exactly a way to let your mind run free in your head, journaling can be an excellent tool to unearth some recurring themes and emotions, to get your writing flowing for yourself, to answer deeper questions about yourself, and to keep stock of your life in general. It helps to empty your head and make space for those good ideas to bubble up.
  4. Go out in nature. I may have recently recommended one of my students to get a breath of fresh air on the windy winter beach. My recent day out in the mountains left me feeling completely refreshed and my head full of fresh ideas. If you can, find the time to head out in nature frequently.
  5. Take a break from your phone. Our phones are major distractors, which keep our brains craving that hit of dopamine and which make sure we never have to feel bored again. But according to Zomorodi, we need that boredom (and a break from our phones) to allow our thoughts to wander. At this moment, I’m keeping my phone in a different room during the day. I can check it, but it requires me to stop doing what I am doing, and making the conscious choice to go to the other room just for my phone.
  6. Sit with your kids at night. One of my “Bored and brilliant” daily moments over these past few years has been sitting with my daughter at night. Nursing her in a pitchdark room, holding her in her little bed until she falls asleep – there’s not much else one can do at such times. While sometimes my mind goes panicky and thinks about all that still needs to be done, when I accept the situation and just let go of these worries, then beautiful ideas surface.
  7. Garden. Take your straw hat and your mud boots and get your fingers in the dirt. Gardening is a high-quality leisure activity that requires a dedicated focus on your plans, and that will help those good ideas come to the forefront of your mind. If you don’t have a real garden, you can make a small garden of potted plants.
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