A growing body of evidence shows that taking regular breaks from mental tasks improves creativity and that skipping breaks can lead to stress, exhaustion, and creative block.
The ideas you have while commuting, or in the shower are not coincidental. They're a result of you taking a step back, whether you're aware of it or not. The brain is built to detect and respond to change. Prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.
According to research, the brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. You lose your focus and your performance on the task declines.
When faced with a long creative problem, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task and improve your idea generation approach. A structured downtime can help you do your best work.
We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don't take regular breaks. If you're hesitant to break away because you feel that you're on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression. Your brain needs downtime to remain industrious and generate better ideas.
David Burkus of Harvard Business Review explains exactly why breaks lead to creative breakthroughs:
"The researchers found that the group given a break to work on an unrelated task (the Myers-Briggs test) generated the most ideas...One possible explanation for these findings is that...When you work on a problem continuously, you can become fixated on previous solutions....Taking a break from the problem and focusing on something else entirely gives the mind some time to release its fixation on the same solutions and let the old pathways fade from memory. Then, when you return to the original problem, your mind is more open to new possibilities -- eureka moments."
Idleness is not a vice, it is indispensable for making those unexpected connections in the brain you crave and necessary to getting creative work done.
According to Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of The Florida State University, who spent more than 30 years studying how people achieve the highest levels of expertise, talented people in many different disciplines -- music, sports, writing -- rarely practice more than four hours each day on average.
Maximize the brain's "focused" and "diffuse" modes
Our brains have two modes. When you are doing creative work, learning something new, or working on your most important tasks, you are in the "focused" mode.
Your brain assumes "diffuse" mode when you are relaxed, taking a walk, or day dreaming. Studies have shown that activity in many regions of the brain increases when your minds wander. Your brain solves its difficult problems while you daydream.
Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman argues that "mind wandering serves multiple adaptive functions, such as future planning, sorting out current concerns, cycling through different information streams, distributed learning (versus cramming), and creativity."
According to engineering professor Barbara Oakley, author of "A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)," in addition to this "focused mode" -- which relies on your brain's prefrontal cortex -- we also learn through a "diffuse mode," rooted in the operations of a variety of different brain regions. In fact, the brain switches back and forth between these modes regularly.
Barbara explains "When you're focusing, you're actually blocking your access to the diffuse mode. And the diffuse mode, it turns out, is what you often need to be able to solve a very difficult, new problem."
Put your mind at rest
Your mind takes your break time to address more important questions during your creative process. A break is essential to achieve your highest levels of performance.
People struggling to solve complicated problems might be better off switching to "diffuse" mode and letting their mind wander.
Take a walk. A few minutes stroll can increase blood flow to the brain, which can boost creative thought. Charles Darwin took long walks around London.
Dickens wrote his novels between the hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. After that, he would go out for a long walk. He once said, "If I couldn't walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish."
Find time to doodle. Let your mind wander as you embrace pen and paper, again. Research shows that doodling can stimulate new ideas and help us stay focused. Make time to exercise. Exercise can give you more energy and help you gain focus. Try this 7-minute workout.
Embrace meditation. Meditation lowers stress levels and improves overall health as well as creativity. Take a nap. A number of studies have established that naps sharpen concentration and improve the performance.
Take proper breaks, often. Completely clear your mind and begin again. Your next big idea depends on it.