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(Konstantin Grebnev/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Konstantin Grebnev/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Rotman Magazine

Stuck on a problem? Then take a break Add to ...

Break-Taking Goes Mainstream

According to a 2009 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 70 per cent of employees work beyond scheduled time – staying late, taking work home, working weekends – and over half cite “self-imposed pressure” as the reason.

There are at least two reasons why we don’t take time out more often. The first is fear. Stepping away from our work is counterintuitive; it somehow feels wrong, like pre-emptive surrender. It’s scary to ease up, because we think may lose our momentum, and that if we take our eye off the problem even for a second, we may lose the energy we’ve invested. But the result is that we get anxious when the solution to whatever we’re struggling with remains elusive, and it’s easy to start doubting our creativity, abilities and even our intelligence.

This is our cue to take a break. But too often, we still don’t, for a second reason: we don’t know how. We haven’t practiced enough to develop a reliable and comfortable way to refresh our mental resources. There are a variety of ways to do this, but three are especially effective.

1. Meditation

Executives at GE, 3M, Bloomberg Media, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Salesforce.com do it. Google teaches a course in it at Google University. Ford chairman William Ford does it, as do former corporate chiefs Bill George of Medtronic and Bob Shapiro of Monsanto. Phil Jackson and Tiger Woods do it. Oracle chief Larry Ellison does it and asks his executives to do it several times a day. Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels and an author of Emotional Equations does it. Thomas Edison did it – mindful meditation.

New research from the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging suggests that people who meditate show more gray matter in certain regions of the brain, stronger connections between brain regions, and less age-related brain atrophy. In other words, meditation might make your brain bigger, faster and younger.

2. Pulsing

Pulsing entails working in 90-minute cycles, separated by short breaks. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, renowned for his research and theories on expertise, has pointed out that top performers in fields ranging from music to science to sports tend to work in approximately 90-minute cycles and then take a break. After each period, go for a walk, change the scene, exercise, doodle, listen to music that relaxes you, shower (if that’s an option) – anything that has a renewal effect and gives you the feeling of a ‘second wind’ – even if you think you don’t need it.

3. Daydreaming walks.

Research confirms the power of this tool. Jonathan Schooler, who has pioneered the study of daydreaming and mind wandering, has shown that people who daydream score higher on creativity tests.

In closing

Neuroscience has now confirmed something that most artists and creatives have long known intuitively: when a well-worn pattern is broken, creativity often emerges. When we need to find far-reaching connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, and when we hit a wall, this is precisely when we need to relax and stop thinking about work.

Countless examples indicate that the answer only arrives when we stop looking for it. As a result, Jonah Lehrer says he never feels guilty for taking long walks in the middle of the day. Nor should you.

Matthew E. May (matthewemay.com) is a creativity coach, innovation strategist and author. His latest book is The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything (McGraw Hill, October 2012).

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