Give It a Rest: To Be Creative, Take a Break

August 2017

san diego art walk

Lots of creativity on display at last weekend’s San Diego Art Walk.

Years ago, Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Chabon and Art Spiegelman spoke to a group of would-be authors about the creative life. Among their advice: If you want to be a writer or cartoonist don’t do it for your day job. You won’t get better with practice; you’ll burn out and fail to finish.

Since then I’ve witnessed the wisdom behind those remarks, backed by personal experience and neuroscience. Our brains need breaks to be more creative, whether using words or illustrations. This goes for those who produce content marketing, which requires copious amounts of creativity so that content is consumed, goes viral or prompts someone to click the Contact Us button.

Time to Switch Gears

It is not difficult to switch between tasks, though it can impede a project’s progress if not done well. What is tough is pulling into and out of deep-work mode when it comes to creative work.

We indulge distractions (Facebook or email, anyone?) so that we can’t fully focus all of our mental energy on one thing for a significant amount of time. Or we go so deep that everything else piles up. Both can potentially mean missed deadlines, which are tough to tolerate in content marketing. Timing is important, and a timeline won’t be honored by a client if the creative team is always late with a deliverable.

A Rested Brain Performs Better

Many of us know the signs of physical exhaustion and eventually cede to the body’s “busy signal.” But the mind’s symptoms of extended stress aren’t apparent as quickly. And yet, it’s the mind we depend on to process problems and come up with creative solutions.

That’s why we at Twirling Tiger Media practice clarity breaks. They are scheduled into our work weeks and honored as much as other efforts.

“The critical thing to recognize is that when we are mind-wandering, when our minds don’t have any particular thing they have to focus on, our brains are pretty darn active,” notes author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in Scientific American. “When you do things like go for a long walk, your subconscious mind keeps working on problems. The experience of having the mind slightly relaxed allows it to explore different combinations of ideas, to test out different solutions. And then once it has arrived at one that looks promising, that is what pops into your head as an Aha! moment.”

The Importance of Switching It Up

Like Pang, researchers at Columbia University recently learned from experimentations that the best creative solutions to more than one issue are most likely to arise from switching between problems or tasks at regular, preset intervals.

Doggedness, from staying fully focused on one task through completion, may make you look more dedicated, but the researchers believe it often leads to problem-solving dead ends. In the creative world, that means lackluster results.

“We find ourselves circling around the same ineffective ideas and don’t recognize when it’s time to move on. In contrast, regularly switching back and forth between two tasks at a set interval can reset your thinking, enabling you to approach each task from fresh angles.”

So, if you find you are creatively striking out, it may not be because you lack great ideas. Instead, you may need to take a break — a truly restorative stretch of time where you distance yourself from your desk. Do it regularly and you may discover your best ideas yet.

–Anne