Different Types of Breaks Boost Creativity and Productivity
Your break needs to fit your goals.
Here’s a scene we can all relate to: It’s mid-afternoon on a workday and you’re fading fast. So you opt to take a break, leaning in to the wealth of research that supports a good ole fashioned pause to help you get more done. But not every type of break helps with every task on your plate: Experts say that the type of break you take should depend on what you’re trying to get done before the day ends, or even what your work goals are in general.
If you’re stuck in a creative rut and need a fresh idea:
To be more creative, research suggests a counterintuitive approach to taking breaks: Plan them more meticulously.
When trying to tackle problems that “require creative thinking,” most people switch between tasks without much rhyme or reason — like spending 5 minutes checking email and then agonizing over a still-blank Google doc until you just can’t look at it anymore, this Harvard Business Review article explains.
The authors of the article — Jackson G. Lu, PhD candidate at Columbia Business School and Modupe Akinola and Malia Mason, both associate professors at Columbia Business School — conducted a study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes on this subject. They explain that mindless task-toggling isn’t the best strategy to get your creative juices flowing, and that what you should do instead is switch “between the problems at a regular, predetermined interval,” they wrote.
In their study, they found that people aren’t great at realizing when they’ve hit a creative roadblock. “We find ourselves circling around the same ineffective ideas and don’t recognize when it’s time to move on,” they wrote in HBR. They added that even when we feel we’re on a roll, it might be an illusion because “We tend to generate redundant ideas when we don’t take regular breaks.”
Instead, try switching between tasks at consciously set intervals — you might even set a timer to help structure breaks, the authors suggest.
If you want to tear through your to-do list:
To be more productive, your best option is to take unplanned, semi-mindless pauses, as this Wall Street Journal article said.
Writer Heidi Mitchell points to research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard Business School showing that unplanned breaks may be the trick to staying productive after a pause.
In one study, the researchers found that taking a “mindless break” (of about 10 minutes) made people 12.81 percent more productive upon returning to work. A second study from the same researchers found that after random, unplanned breaks (enforced by a frozen computer screen) people were 15 to 20 percent more productive and accurate after they returned to work compared to people who took scheduled breaks.
Paul Green, a a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School and researcher on those studies, told Mitchell that the key to these breaks lies in their spontaneity. When met with an unplanned break, workers “didn’t turn their focus,” and instead “kept their minds on standby.”
Taking a “planned break from routine — or a break where you have to do an unexpected work-related task — means that you’re changing your mental focus to another activity,” which makes it harder to get back into the groove, Mitchell wrote.
Planning a surprise break is obviously a bit challenging, but Green emphasized that you can reap the same productivity-boosting benefits if you’re more mindful of where you focus your attention during breaks.
To be more productive when you get back to work, the “key is to not engage,” in whatever you’re doing during the break, Green told Mitchell. “They need to act like they’re in a scene from ‘The Walking Dead.’” That means your unplanned break shouldn’t involve strategic project planning or anything of the sort. Think, like Green suggests, of a much less mentally-taxing task, like going for a quick walk.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work:
If you sense you’re on the road to burnout, there’s a specific type of break for you.
In this Harvard Business Review article, Rachael O’Meara, author of Pause: Harnessing the Life-Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break, said that before you make any big decisions — like leaving your job, for instance — you should take a deliberate pause and recalibrate.
O’Meara outlines a three-step plan for taking this sort of pause. Start by writing down what’s going on with your situation, like what is and isn’t working and what sort of action you want to take to solve the problem.
Next, she wrote, set an intention. “What do you want to get out of this pause and how do you want to feel at the end of it?” Lastly, decide how much time you want to break for, whether it’s periodic breaks every 90 minutes at work or a week-long reset.
While a longer reset might be in order, there are other ways to get these benefits if you can’t afford to take that much time away from work. O’Meara suggests taking a visit to a “place that brings peace of mind and joy to your day,” and being mindful of your surroundings. “You might even consider starting a ‘pausebook’ or journal to document what you experience,” she suggests.
In addition, you can strive for work-life integration by mixing your work schedule with enriching activities like “doing something outside of your comfort zone like taking a class, coaching your child’s sports” she wrote, or going on a weekend trip.