A Qualitative Study of Daydreaming Episodes at Work

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to explore the experiential elements of mind wandering at work and prompt the formation of new research questions addressing this experiential perspective. To do this, we use an episodic framework for mind wandering that is grounded in the subjective work experience and examines mind wandering holistically. Thirty full-time employees participated in semi-structured qualitative interviews exploring the experience of mind wandering at work. Responses were transcribed and then coded using conventional content analysis. Data collection and coding proceeded in an iterative process, as described by Grounded Theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). This qualitative study provides descriptive evidence for the experiential components of a mind wandering episode (onset, termination cues, and outcomes). Within each of these components, additional themes are identified, discussed, and connected to person- and organization-centric work processes. The thematic organization of daydreaming episodes reveals new aspects of the subjective experience of daydreaming that can be explored further. To aid this, we provide a framework for investigating the inter-relationships between these aspects. The identification of these subjective experiences paves the way for novel research investigating how daydreams, and the accompanying subjective experience, inform momentary work processes. This paper provides a unique subjective experience to understanding mind wandering at work. By directly addressing the phenomenology of mind wandering at work, we encourage a new perspective to the mind wandering phenomena and encourage the development of new research questions.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    While daydreams undoubtedly have a beginning, middle, and end, what occurs during a daydream is outside of the scope of the current study. The current paper focuses on work characteristics that lead to daydream onset, termination, and perceived outcomes. We believe that the experiential aspect of daydreaming is both interesting and important, but that it is not relevant to the present paper.

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Appendix: Interview Protocol

Appendix: Interview Protocol

Introduction

Most people find their mind wanders at work. There are a lot of terms for it. They space out, they daydream, they zone out, they drift off, etc. We would like to talk to you about those types of experiences today. We would like to find out more about the experience as a whole. What your daydreams are like and what you think of the experience. While we will commonly just say “daydream,” please know that we mean any of the above and are referring specifically to when you daydream at work. While we would appreciate it if you could give us detailed information, please only give us the amount of information that you feel comfortable sharing. If at any point you do not want to answer a question, you do not have to. Take as much time as you need to respond.

Iteration 1

  1. 1.

    How often in a typical workday you find yourself thinking about things other than the immediate task you are working on?

  2. 2.

    Are your daydreams generally work-related or unrelated to work?

  3. 3.

    How long do you typically find yourself working before your mind wanders on any given day?

  4. 4.

    We would like to start off by focusing specifically on those times when daydreaming is unintentional. What are your unintentional daydreams are usually about?

    1. a.

      What topics do you unintentionally dream about?

    2. b.

      Are your unintentional daydreams more past-focused or future-focused?

    3. c.

      How do you feel after unintentionally daydreaming?

    4. d.

      How vivid are your unintentional daydreams?

    5. e.

      Can you describe the sensory experience of an unintentional daydream?

    6. f.

      Do you feel a certain way before an unintentional daydream occurs?

    7. g.

      Can you please estimate how long your unintentional daydreams last?

    8. h.

      When your mind stops wandering, what usually brings you out of it?

    9. i.

      After an unintentional daydream, how difficult or easy is it for you to refocus?

    10. j.

      How do you feel after the unintentional daydream is over?

  5. 5.

    Next, we would like to focus on those times when daydreaming is intentional. What are your intentional daydreams are usually about?

    1. a.

      Repeat questions 4a–4j.

  6. 6.

    Anything else to describe your daydreaming experiences?

  7. 7.

    We would just like to finish up by talking a little bit more about a specific type of daydreaming. Specifically, we would like to talk about work daydreams that occur at home.

    1. a.

      Do you ever daydream about work things while you are home?

    2. b.

      Are there ever days where it’s difficult for you to shut off work thoughts?

    3. c.

      Are there specific types of work things you think about when you are at home?

    4. d.

      How often do you talk about your workday with others after the day is over?

    5. e.

      Are there certain things you do to help you stop thinking about work when the day is over?

Iteration 2

  1. 1.

    What does daydreaming mean to you?

  2. 2.

    Could you please take me through a typical daydreaming experience of yours?

    1. a.

      If you can remember, what typically happens before the daydream?

  3. 3.

    What situations lead to you daydreaming?

    1. a.

      Is it physical, mental, emotional?

    2. b.

      How often do those occur?

  4. 4.

    What other things lead you to daydream at work?

  5. 5.

    Why do you daydream at work?

    1. a.

      What does it do for you?

  6. 6.

    How did the daydreaming experience help you?

  7. 7.

    How did the daydreaming experience hurt you?

  8. 8.

    Would you tell me about another daydreaming experience?

    1. a.

      If you can remember, what was happening before the daydream?

  9. 9.

    What purpose does daydreaming serve?

  10. 10.

    What are the benefits, to you, when you daydream?

  11. 11.

    What are the consequences of daydreaming?

  12. 12.

    Could you please give an example of a less typical daydreaming experience?

    1. a.

      What made it different from your typical daydreaming experiences?

    2. b.

      What was happening before the daydream?

  13. 13.

    How do daydreams help you escape your work environment?

  14. 14.

    After using a daydream to escape, how do you feel?

    1. a.

      Is it a physical feeling, a mental feeling, an emotional feeling?

    2. b.

      What is the experience like?

  15. 15.

    Do different types of mind wandering or daydreaming experiences help you in different ways?

  16. 16.

    What are some ways in which you use daydreaming to your advantage while at work?

  17. 17.

    Can you please describe, using your five senses, the experience of daydreaming?

    1. a.

      What do you hear, see, smell, feel, and taste?

  18. 18.

    How is being immersed in a daydream differ from reality?

  19. 19.

    How is being immersed in a daydream similar to reality?

  20. 20.

    How does daydreaming impact your perception of time?

  21. 21.

    How often do you “catch” yourself unintentionally daydreaming?

    1. a.

      When do you most often unintentionally daydream?

  22. 22.

    Please describe a situation where you realized you were unintentionally daydreaming.

    1. a.

      What was happening before you daydream?

    2. b.

      What led you to catch yourself?

    3. c.

      Why did this daydream end?

  23. 23.

    Please describe a different situation where you realized you were unintentionally daydreaming.

    1. a.

      What was happening before your daydream?

    2. b.

      What led you to catch yourself daydreaming?

      1. i.

        If different from the above answer ask: “What is different about this ‘catching’ experience compared to your first example?”

    3. c.

      Why did this daydream end?

  24. 24.

    Can you please describe more fully what it is like to “catch” yourself daydreaming?

    1. a.

      Please describe, using your five senses, what it is like to “catch” yourself daydreaming.

  25. 25.

    What are the different ways you seem to “catch” yourself?

  26. 26.

    How do you become aware that you are daydreaming?

Iteration 3

  1. 1.

    What does daydreaming mean to you?

  2. 2.

    Could you please take me through a typical daydreaming experience of yours?

    1. a.

      If you can remember, what typically happens before the daydream?

  3. 3.

    What situations lead to you daydreaming?

    1. a.

      Is it physical, mental, emotional?

    2. b.

      How often do those occur?

  4. 4.

    What other things lead you to daydream at work?

  5. 5.

    Why do you daydream at work?

    1. a.

      What does it do for you?

  6. 6.

    How did the daydreaming experience help you?

  7. 7.

    How did the daydreaming experience hurt you?

  8. 8.

    Would you tell me about another daydreaming experience?

    1. a.

      If you can remember, what was happening before the daydream?

  9. 9.

    What purpose does daydreaming serve?

  10. 10.

    What are the benefits, to you, when you daydream?

  11. 11.

    What are the consequences of daydreaming?

  12. 12.

    Could you please give an example of a less typical daydreaming experience?

    1. a.

      What made it different from your typical daydreaming experiences?

    2. b.

      What was happening before the daydream?

  13. 13.

    How do daydreams help you escape your work environment?

  14. 14.

    After using a daydream to escape, how do you feel?

    1. a.

      Is it a physical feeling, a mental feeling, an emotional feeling?

    2. b.

      What is the experience like?

  15. 15.

    Do different types of mind wandering or daydreaming experiences help you in different ways?

  16. 16.

    What are some ways in which you use daydreaming to your advantage while at work?

  17. 17.

    Can you describe a simple daydream you experience?

  18. 18.

    Can you describe an elaborate daydream that you experience?

    1. a.

      How are these two types of daydreams different?

  19. 19.

    Can you please describe, using your five senses, the experience of daydreaming?

    1. a.

      What do you hear, see, smell, feel, and taste?

  20. 20.

    How is being immersed in a daydream differ from reality?

  21. 21.

    How is being immersed in a daydream similar to reality?

  22. 22.

    How does daydreaming impact your perception of time?

  23. 23.

    Does daydreaming impact your awareness of your surroundings?

    1. a.

      Do you “zone out” at work?

    2. b.

      How is “zoning out” different from daydreaming?

    3. c.

      How is “zoning out” similar to daydreaming?

  24. 24.

    What is it like to get “lost” in a daydream?

  25. 25.

    What is it like to “find” yourself in a daydream?

  26. 26.

    How often do you “catch” yourself unintentionally daydreaming?

    1. a.

      When do you most often unintentionally daydream?

  27. 27.

    Please describe a situation where you realized you were unintentionally daydreaming.

    1. a.

      What was happening before you daydream?

    2. b.

      What led you to catch yourself?

    3. c.

      Why did this daydream end?

  28. 28.

    Please describe a different situation where you realized you were unintentionally daydreaming.

    1. a.

      What was happening before your daydream?

    2. b.

      What led you to catch yourself daydreaming?

      1. ii.

        If different from the above answer ask: “What is different about this ‘catching’ experience compared to your first example?”

    3. c.

      Why did this daydream end?

  29. 29.

    Can you please describe more fully what it is like to “catch” yourself daydreaming?

    1. a.

      Please describe, using your five senses, what it is like to “catch” yourself daydreaming.

  30. 30.

    What are the different ways you seem to “catch” yourself?

  31. 31.

    How do you become aware that you are daydreaming?

Iteration 4

  1. 1.

    What does daydreaming mean to you?

  2. 2.

    Can you describe a simple daydream you have experienced?

  3. 3.

    Can you describe an elaborate daydream that you have experienced?

  4. 4.

    Can you please describe, using your five senses, the experience of daydreaming?

    1. a.

      What do you hear, see, smell, feel, and taste?

  5. 5.

    How is being immersed in a daydream different from reality?

  6. 6.

    How is being immersed in a daydream similar to reality?

  7. 7.

    How does daydreaming impact your perception of time?

  8. 8.

    Does daydreaming impact your awareness of your surroundings?

    1. a.

      Do you “zone out” at work?

    2. b.

      How is “zoning out” different from daydreaming?

    3. c.

      How is “zoning out” similar to daydreaming?

  9. 9.

    What is it like to get “lost” in a daydream?

  10. 10.

    What is it like to “find” yourself in a daydream?

  11. 11.

    How often do you “catch” yourself unintentionally daydreaming?

    1. a.

      When do you most often unintentionally daydream?

  12. 12.

    Please describe a situation where you realized you were unintentionally daydreaming.

    1. a.

      What was happening before you daydream?

    2. b.

      What led you to catch yourself?

    3. c.

      Why did this daydream end?

  13. 13.

    Please describe a different situation where you realized you were unintentionally daydreaming.

    1. a.

      What was happening before your daydream?

    2. b.

      What led you to catch yourself daydreaming?

      1. iii.

        If different from the above answer ask: “What is different about this ‘catching’ experience compared to your first example?”

    3. c.

      Why did this daydream end?

  14. 14.

    Can you please describe more fully what it is like to “catch” yourself daydreaming?

    1. a.

      Please describe, using your five senses, what it is like to “catch” yourself daydreaming.

  15. 15.

    What are the different ways you seem to “catch” yourself?

  16. 16.

    We have talked about 3 different daydreaming experiences: simple daydreams, elaborate daydreams, and “zoning out”.

    1. a.

      How are these types of daydreams different?

    2. b.

      What prompts these different types of daydreaming? Are the prompts different? Similar?

    3. c.

      What ends these two different types of daydreaming?

    4. d.

      After the daydream ends, please describe how you feel.

      1. i.

        Do you feel different depending on the experience? Similar?

General end questions

  1. 1.

    What surprises you about your daydreaming experiences?

  2. 2.

    Is there anything else you would like to share?

Additional potential probe questions

  1. 1.

    Would you please tell me more about that?

  2. 2.

    Could you explain that further?

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Merlo, K.L., Wiegand, K.E., Shaughnessy, S.P. et al. A Qualitative Study of Daydreaming Episodes at Work. J Bus Psychol 35, 203–222 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-018-9611-4

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Keywords

  • Mind wandering
  • Daydreaming
  • Content analysis
  • Interviews
  • Subjective experience