Creativity and taking a break

Have you ever given up on a problem, only to find that the answer miraculously jumps out at you the next day?

Graham Wallas, in his work Art of Thought, published in 1926, presented one of the first models of the creative process. Wallas separated the process into five phases, one of which was incubation. Incubation, to him, was the phase that followed preparation and involved leaving things alone, or ‘sleeping’ on the problem.

Beeftink and Van Erde also found evidence of the positive effects of taking a break. In their experiment, participants were more likely to find solutions to a cryptic problem if they were allowed to take breaks when they chose

They also found that interruption, although less useful in finding answers, was very useful in preventing the feeling of having reached an impasse, or being stuck. (“The Effects of Interruptions and Breaks on Insight and Impasses: Do You Need a Break Right Now?”, Flora Beeftink and Wendelien Van Erde, Creativity Research Journal 20(4), 358-364, 2008).

Todd Henry’s Accidental Creative podcast on PACE also talks about the benefits of taking time to absorb information. Henry points out that creatives spend a lot of time absorbing information, and need to allow extra time to assimilate this information into their thinking.

I gave up smoking five years ago thankfully, but one of the main reasons why I enjoyed cigarettes were their facility to give me a break. No matter how important the work, my nicotine addiction would remind me to step outside for five minutes every hour. Often I would spend my smoking time in contemplation, allowing my work experiences to incubate.

Now a non-smoker, I take far fewer breaks and find I work in a more focused way. After reading Beeftink and Van Erde’s research, I feel inspired to take more time out from work.

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