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I Dreamed a Dream of Onions: Positive Daydreaming and How to Use it Effectively

I love cooking. It allows me time to think, process the day’s events, and gives me a great sense of satisfaction from eating something delicious I made myself. The other day I was making caramelized onions, which can be a laborious and tedious task. Getting those onions to the perfect balance of salty, tangy, and sweet takes time, attention, and a little bit of love. No, this has not turned into a blog about cooking, or onions: it is about daydreaming productively.

Our brains have a natural tendency to daydream. When we are doing simple, boring, or monotonous tasks, our brain gets bored and wanders. For some people their daydreams focus on arguments or negative experiences they had, others fantasize about their goals and dreams, many will anxiously run through every mistake they ever made; everyone is different.

This natural tendency to daydream can be used very positively and can be used negatively, depending on what you focus on. Positive daydreaming is when you use your natural daydreaming tendencies productively: to get tasks done, improve your well-being, or to help you figure out how to solve the problems rolling around in your head. Daydreaming can be a negative and unhelpful experience when it is used to ruminate on issues, beat yourself up for something, or when it is not constructive.

For example, I love to positively daydream while I am cooking. The other day while making caramelized onions I could have spent my time thinking about how much paperwork I had sitting on my desk and beating myself for not being a responsible human who gets things done sooner. However, instead of ruminating on the problem and thinking about how much it sucks that I have that much stuff to do, I spent the time daydreaming about this blog post. As a result, by the time I sat down to write something that would normally take a couple hours, I was able to write this in 30 minutes because I had done most of the writing in my head. So next time you are cooking or doing something boring, try doing some planning: plan out your paper, your next vacation, your budget, what you are going to say in a conversation: anything that you find helpful.

Positive daydreaming can be used for more than just planning and prep work. It can be used to identify inefficiencies in your day and make you more productive overall. For example, while making onions I was simultaneously making pizza dough. If you have every made caramelized onions, you will know that you cannot walk away from them for very long or they will burn (and no one wants burnt onions). For some silly reason I had initially set up my dough station on one side of the kitchen, and my onions were cooking on the other. While daydreaming about ways I could make my day go faster since I had about 10,000 pieces of paperwork on my desk that I needed to get to, I realized that I was making this cooking process longer by running around way more than I needed to so I moved my bowl to the other side of the kitchen beside my onions: no more burnt onions and no more running around the kitchen and accidently stepping on cats who like to supervise everything from under your feet.

The wealth of joy I was basking in after correcting my mistake lasted about 10 minutes when I realized I had made another grave error that was costing me valuable paperwork time. In my mission to get things done quickly, I did not bother to cut my onions evenly: I just chopped them up roughly and threw them in the pan. As a result, my onions were not cooking at the same rate, and I had to diligently stand beside my pan to take out the smaller onions as they cooked so they would not burn as the bigger pieces cooked. It was a huge pain in the ass. In addition to the ridiculous amount of time it took to do this, it also meant that I was chained to the pan while the onions were cooking, which didn’t allow me to get anything else done at the same time (such as empty the dishwasher).

The most frustrating part of this discovery was that this was not the first time I had made this mistake. Every time I had made this mistake before I promised myself, I would not do it again. I promised that future-me would remember how much of a pain it was if I did not cut the onions properly. So why didn’t I do it this time? Because today-me did not believe past-me. Today-me told old-me that it wasn’t that big of a deal, and it would be fine this time (obviously it was not).

I tried to focus on ways I could convince my future self that this was indeed an important task, since my previous strategy did not work the first 100-or-so times I did it. What I came up with was dusting off my old mind-palace that had been gathering cobwebs for quite some time. Sherlock Holmes uses mind palaces a lot, so if you have no idea what that is: go watch some Sherlock Holmes and you may get the gist. Or Google it. Many mind palace apps can also be found for android and iOS devices.

I had been trying to think of ways to enhance and utilize my mind palace that I had set up in an earlier daydream but never really utilized a lot. In my mind I added a peg to the kitchen of my palace: a big leather-bound recipe book on the counter. In my positive daydream I imagined flipping to a new page, picking up a peacock feather quill and ink bottle and writing the title “Caramelized Onions” in beautiful calligraphy writing that I cannot do in real life. I wrote out the ingredients and beside onions I put a little * and a footnote at the bottom of the page: “Cut up the onions evenly or they will not cook evenly! Seriously future you, do NOT skip this step!”. It may sound ridiculous to write a note to your future self in your head, but for me it works.

Because I have put that into my mind palace, next time I go to make caramelized onions something will tickle in my brain, like that feeling you get when you think there is something important you have forgotten to do.

That will cue me to look in my mind palace because there was something I need to remember. Then I will go into my mind palace recipe book in my head and read my note to my future self. The fact that I took the time and effort to put it there means it is important, and I will (hopefully) be more likely to follow my past-self’s advice instead of ignoring it.

Positive daydreaming can be a very helpful and productive experience. Next time that you are doing something monotonous, try it out and see if you can find ways to improve your life. find the times that work best for you: whether that is while you are in the shower, doing chores, or during your commute to work/school. It takes conscious effort in the beginning to not let yourself dip into negative daydreaming, but it becomes easier over time. If you think you may have trouble remembering your ideas, dictation software or a voice recorder app is a great way to get your ideas down without having to use your hands. Many people positively daydream while they are doing other things, so this is a great option if you are one of those people and need your hands to do stuff.

Don’t know what to daydream about? Here are some suggestions to help get you started:

Look for inefficiencies:

  • Are there ways to get this or other tasks done faster?

  • What would make your task easier or at least less boring/mundane/gross, etc?

Work on your relationships:

  • Are there boundaries you have been wanting to set but avoiding? Try planning out what you want and what you might say. Contemplate on what types of boundaries you are good at setting, and what areas you could improve on.

  • How are your relationships doing? Is there anyone you haven’t connected with in a while? Write down a potential good day/time to connect with them, or just do it now.

Improve your communication:

  • Have their been times in the past where you didn’t say something you wanted to? Plan out what you could say/do differently in the future and practice.

  • Practice saying things out loud to yourself so you can get practice using the tone of voice you want.

Plan stuff:

  • Plan out your paper/report that you haven’t started.

  • Plan your next vacation.

  • Plan your meals for the next day or take it a step further and plan for the week.

  • Plan your goals for the next day/week/month/year/whatever-timeline-works-for-you.

Manage your Schedule:

  • Create your task list and prioritize it.

  • Review what important events you have coming up this week/month/year.

Uplift your mood:

  • Think about what went well in your day/week.

  • Think about the things you are grateful for.

  • Think about ways you can help others.

Do your therapy homework:

  • Practice one of the coping skills you learned but haven’t tried out yet.

  • Think about your goals.

  • Review your progress and the changes you have made.

  • Think about what you would like out of your next session.

Resources for More Information

For the history lovers: Kaufman, S.B. & Singer, J.L. (2011). The Origins of Positive-Constructive Daydreaming. Scientific American Blog. Dec 22, 2011.

More reasons why you should use positive daydreaming: Field, B. (2021). 5 Positive Effects of Daydreaming. Verywell mind Blog. Apr 14, 2021.

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