How to Take Breaks That Improve Creativity & Productivity

Finding time to do your most creative work is hard.

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An optimal work-and-create flow is an extended period of time in which your mind and body are performing at their best when engaged in high-thinking and high-imagining tasks and projects. 

During this time you sustain focus, your body’s fire stays stoked, your attitude flourishes, your imagination hangs from the monkey bars.

But it’s pretty typical to get overwhelmed by obligations and tasks that don’t leave much time for the projects that light us up.

In light of today’s cultural causes, now more than ever you may be feeling called to act but are having a hard time finding the time.

Most of us know that pulling all-nighters and pumping our bodies with caffeine does not make for optimal workflow.

Facing constraints on my own creative time, I created a productivity tool and time management system designed for my clients who are largely professionals, thought leaders, business owners, and creatives. I call it the Mind Rooms Guide. And developed it based on the psychology of creative thinking and productivity. It uses the process of shaping time rather than fighting against it.

As a creative, I needed a way to capture my BIG ideas and place them into a system where I could actually begin to realize and work on them. Too many inspirations were being shelved or in some cases lost completely due to my battles with time.

Through the process of developing the Minds Room Guide, I began to see the inherent benefits of rest as a creativity and productivity tool.

Here are a few practices that incorporate rest as a tool to help your productivity and creative flow.

Shorter Work Days. The youthful brain is faster but not necessarily better (and working 16-hour days is not necessarily more productive). I know numerous twenty-somethings who champion their 16-hour workdays and Silicon Valley-like war stories of all-nighters to innovate a software product. Among twenty-somethings, to work-and-crash is cool. We hear the stories almost daily.

If you’ve reached the middle years and bemoan your inability to think quickly or work as hard as you used to, take note of psychologist Sherry Willis’s longitudinal study of cognitive performance. For more than 40 years, this study has tracked the cognitive performance of over 6,000 healthy men and women.

When it comes to verbal memory, spatial orientation, inductive reasoning, and vocabulary, this group’s 45-year-old selves way outperform their 25-year-old selves. Peak performance in these areas occurs between 40 and 65, according to Willis in her book Life in the Middle.

Take-away: If you’re middle-aged and feel frustrated because you seem to work more slowly, take heart. You’re likely working at far more effective, complex levels than your younger co-workers. It’s not only okay to take breaks during your work flow, it’s recommended if you want to perform at your best.

Break With Rhythm. Our bodies and minds have natural rhythms of optimal performance. For most of us, those rhythms are in 90-minute to 2-hour increments. Our natural rapid-eye-movement dream cycles, for instance, typically flow in 90-minute waves.

So, if you want to sustain your momentum over the long haul—over fifty, sixty years, say, and not just one glorious decade—then take breaks now.

We can break down that 90-minute rhythm even further into 25-minute sprints. Most people can pay attention to a talk for 25 minutes (hence, the brilliance of TED Talks’ 17-minute limit).

I work with a highly reputed novelist and short story writer, who wisely writes in three 25-minute periods—each divided with a timer. At the end of the third period, she takes a walk or switches to another activity.

Take-away: Work in short sprints and then remove yourself from the work environment if possible.

Distraction Can Re-boot Long Term Focus. Here’s a mind-twister: Atsunori Ariga and Alejandro Lleras of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign questioned the assumption that loss of focus came from, say, fatigue or lack of attention. In 2010, their study concluded that a deliberate distraction or introduction of a second task actually can increase vigilant attention on the first task.

As long as such breaks are rare and deliberate. And as long as the type of second task does not lead to prolonged distraction, it can be beneficial. The second task off-sets the mind’s tendency to get accustomed to a certain groove of thinking.

But, remember, introducing a quick, deliberate second task is not the same as multi-tasking, and it is not the same as being mindlessly distracted.

Take-away: Pay attention to when you need to introduce a quick second task. Maybe sending off an email or text message will free up mental bandwidth and get you re-committed to the high-thinking task. Try doing this in tandem with the “Break with Rhythm” suggestions.

Enjoy Your Evenings. According to organizational psychologist,  Sabine Sonnentag at the University of Konstanz, Germany, people who disengage from thinking about their work during the evening are routinely happier and more refreshed the next day.

Take-away: Schedule non-digital time in the evenings, especially 45 minutes before sleep. Set up a bi-weekly schedule of evening rhythms: One Monday as “reading night,” One Tuesday as “date night,” et cetera. If you must work some evenings, schedule work evenings. Make them the exception instead of the rule.

Even when you develop a new habit or two, you still might feel you lack the time to create what matters or act on the causes that call you.

Maybe you’re ready to stop fighting time and to start shaping time.

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