Why You Need Time Away from Work to Solve Work Problems and Be Creative

November 2017

Woman drive a car reflects in back view mirror

Photograph: iStock

While shutting down my computer at the end of the day, I believed I had completed a creative project to everyone’s satisfaction. But the next morning, moments after stepping into the solitude of my steamy shower, I realized the project was not quite right and a part of it needed to be redone. I did not consciously ruminate over the project the evening before, but the search for a better solution was apparently gnawing at me through the night. The revelation did not come to me during the previous workday as I toiled on the project seeking the perfection I thought I had achieved; instead, it came in a quiet and detached-from-work moment. It’s as if a door suddenly swung open and a voice uttered, “This is not the best solution. Try this and that for a better result.” That process and thought facilitated my unexpected creative breakthrough.

You may have experienced waking in the middle of the night with a fresh and clear interpretation of a problem. Science says you arrived at that resolution via the restorative benefits of sleep—from our ability to consolidate new information with knowledge we already possess to parsing out misleading background information. And “sleeping on it” is likely the reason for more assured decision-making … think of that sudden insight you may have had for an evolved strategy to a work or personal situation in favor of that knee-jerk reaction you felt bubbling up the day before.

Make taking breaks part of your work process

To foster better problem-solving abilities and peak creativity at Twirling Tiger Media, we’ve been trained in taking “clarity breaks.” Detaching responsibly from intrusive distractions may help you fully focus on creative solutions and propel your progress. A clarity break sends you away from your workstation, leaving technology behind to stretch, listen to music, exercise, meditate or simply walk outdoors—whatever works best for you. My coworker, Anne, likes to follow Henry David Thoreau’s lead: “Me thinks the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” I’m not going to lie … it takes tremendous effort for me to tear away from work for such a break, and I struggle with doing it consistently. But it’s a truly beneficial practice.

How and when solutions may form

I recently asked associates to identify how and when they have experienced their most inspired, a-ha! moments for problematic projects they’ve worked on. Their responses point to mostly moments of solitude, and not the times seated in a group hashing out the best ideas.

  • An attorney responded, “At two o’clock in the morning—when I am awoken from sleep or in the shower or exercising.”
  • A media executive said, “Thinking hard about something doesn’t necessarily yield results. Inspiration and answers can come while driving, mowing the lawn, talking with my wife or just seemingly out of nowhere.”  An inspired business solution came to him while watching Netflix—and realizing the Netflix model worked for offering a series of webinars on-demand and all at once.
  • A graduate student stated that her a-ha! moments present themselves “when I am not working on the problem … when I’m in the shower or trying to fall asleep.”
  • An accounting and business management consultant replied, “My a-ha! moments come at the darnedest times and do not follow a pattern. They have occurred: early morning hours; late night hours (after a few scotches); in network meetings listening to others; and driving.”

We need more downtime to solve problems

The fast-approaching holidays will afford us some time to enjoy family, friends and me-time. Think of all the rest, exercise, meditation and outdoor activities on the horizon that will bolster your creative stores, helping you to solve problems more effectively!

—Maureen