Maladaptive Daydreaming and Studying: A Common CombinationLast Updated:
One of the interesting aspects of when you first begin maladaptive daydreaming is that you can go weeks, months, or even years without realizing that you're doing it. Somehow you engage in something for hours a day, but think nothing of it. Then a lightbulb goes off and you realize that what you're doing isn't quite normal.
Through creating the maladaptive daydreaming test, I've received many interesting comments from people about how they've tried to piece together when they first left the realm of adaptive daydreams and began to engage in maladaptive daydreaming.
What many have reported is that they began in high school or college as a way to procrastinate from studying. Then their daydreams metastasized from there. In this post I'm going to try to lay out what that connection between studying and maladaptive daydreaming is, and how try try to nip these daydreams in the bud.
Why Maladaptive Daydreaming Happens While Studying
The reality is that when we're engaged in hard intellectual tasks - especially those we aren't overly interested in - our minds are constantly spinning up an internal dialogue trying to persuade ourselves to stop and pursue something less cognitively draining.
If you've watched nearly any movie that involves people in college, there's almost invariably a scene where a character is trying to study but then finds themselves staring out a window wistfully trying to avoid getting back to studying.
It's perfectly natural to want to leave the hard realm of studying for a physics exam into the much easier and perfectly controlled realm of daydreaming. But while daydreaming instead of studying may not be good for your grades, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it at a deeper level.
The issue becomes when those daydreams that you're spinning up in your mind suddenly become more present outside of when you're just trying to avoid studying and instead become an essential coping mechanism.
How to Know if Your Daydreams While Studying are Maladaptive
One of the primary ways in which we discriminate between normal daydreams and those that are maladaptive is if your daydreams are fundamentally disruptive to your life.
However, while that definition works for most scenarios, when thinking about daydreams in the context of studying this definition likely isn't sufficient. This is because it's perfectly normal to want to distract yourself while doing something that is intellectually difficult. While procrastination is a problem that can be "disruptive" to your life, we need to separate it from a discussion around maladaptive daydreaming.
So in order to figure out whether or not the daydreams you're having while studying could be maladaptive, you should think about when else you have these daydreams. If you don't have them at all, outside the context of studying, then it is unlikely that they are maladaptive. Instead, they are just a form of procrastination that's no different than compulsively opening up your phone while studying.
However, if you find that the daydreams that first popped into your mind while studying are now a large part of your day, and arise throughout the day, then they may be maladaptive. In particular, if you find yourself running over the same type of dream - perhaps even using the exact same script or setting - whenever you have some free time or feel stressed.
How to Stop Daydreaming While Studying
Fortunately, whether you're only daydreaming while studying (which is not ideal, but not maladaptive) or whether you think you're having true maladaptive daydreams, the same methods can be utilized to stop them.
While I discuss all the methods I've come up with in my book, there's one great method that you can utilized specifically when you're studying that we'll cover here.
Whenever you're studying and recognize that you've slipped into some daydream, immediately take out a pen and begin writing down your daydream (alternatively, you can open up a blank document on your computer and begin typing it out instead).
One of the curious things about daydreaming in general is that they have an incredible amount of allure when we're imagining them in our mind, but when we actually write them out all the allure vanishes. For some reason daydreams just become less appealing when verbalized or written down.
A working theory among some academics as to why this is the case is that by physically writing or typing out your daydreams you're translating something that is purely a function of your mind - so is, in some way, separate from yourself - into the real world.
Whatever the actual rationale is for why this method works so well, for the vast majority of people it does. However, it often takes a bit of repetition for it to fully work.
So what you need to do is begin writing out exactly what your daydream is - just like it's a movie script - whenever you find yourself engaging in it while studying. What you'll quickly find is that your temptation to enter into these daydreams is lessened and, most importantly, as soon as you begin typing it out you'll no longer want to enter back into the same daydream.
Because, as you likely know if you're reading this, the worst part about daydreams (in particular if they're maladaptive) if that they take up so much of your waking life. Therefore, by recognizing when you're in a state of daydreaming and then immediately writing down what's going through your mind you ensure that you don't get stuck in a state of spending hours daydreaming to yourself without fully realizing it.
An important thing to note here is that you have absolutely no obligation to show what you've written down to anyone else. You don't need to write in full sentences or make everything grammatically correct. Most people find that after a few minutes of writing about their daydreams they desperately want to stop, and they don't want to enter back into the daydream they've just written down.
After you're done writing, throw away the piece of paper or delete the document you were typing. Then get back to the studying you were doing beforehand. If you feel yourself entering back into a daydream, start the process over again. Write it down, throw it out, and get back to studying.
What most people report is that if they really attempt to use this method for a few days they lose almost all desire to daydream while studying. In fact, they report that the actual content of those daydreams no longer hold much appeal to them.
When many maladaptive daydreamers think back to when it all began, they realize that it was when they were studying (or, perhaps more aptly put, when they were trying to avoid studying).
While it's perfectly normal to try to distract yourself while studying, one does need to be cognizant of the fact that maladaptive daydreams can begin creeping outside the bounds of when you're trying to study and into your broader life -- taking up an increasing number of your waking hours until it becomes a non-trivial and disruptive issue in your life.
Fortunately, there's one method to stop these daydreams that's effective for most people, and that's just writing down whatever your daydreams happen to be as they're happening. For many people this just zaps the daydreams of the allure that they have.
Hopefully this helps and, as always, I wish you the very best in your journey.