Naps, Breaks, Vacations, and Drifting

Counter-intuitive Routes to Creativity and Productivity

 By Steve Hooley

Christmas is coming and Hanukkah has passed

One week until Christmas. Twelve days after Hanukkah. Family gatherings, parties, and travel, all will cause interruptions in our writing schedules. Are these interruptions good or bad? Do they help or hurt our creativity? Do they increase or decrease our productivity?

As I contemplated a topic for this post, I remembered hearing of references to the benefit of breaks from writing to increase creativity and productivity. I had always been somewhat skeptical, being more of a puritanical believer in “put butt in chair” and write. I thought this might be a good time to take a look at some of that research on breaks.

Before I start on the topic today, I should mention that JSB wrote on a parallel topic this past Sunday, 12/12/21 – “Ways to Write When You’re Not Writing.”

Back to today’s post:

I found an article in Scientific American that summarized some of the recent research. And an article in Writer’s Digest, (Writer’s Digest, May/June 2021, pgs. 40-44, “The Curiously Effective Way to Beat Procrastination,” Michael La Ronn), had caught my eye with a discussion of “drifting.” These two articles are the basis for today’s post.

Summary of research over last ten years

In the article from Scientific American, titled “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime,” author, Ferris Jabr, begins with a brief intro: “Research on naps, meditation, nature walks, and the habits of exceptional artists and athletes reveals how mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories, and encourage creativity.”

He describes what happens when we don’t take those breaks, and defines “cerebral congestion” as that “sense of so much coming at you at once, so much to process, that you can’t deal with it all.” He then shifts to the benefit of long periods of time (vacation) away from the cause of the stress.

Apparently, people in the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong take the fewest days off work each year (10 days), versus European Union (20 days) or the Netherlands (26 days).

Along with the intuitive belief that such continuous busyness is not healthy, there is now much empirical evidence from studies that “the benefits of vacation, meditation, and time spent in parks, gardens, and other peaceful outdoor spaces, along with napping and unwinding while awake, can sharpen the mind.” It is argued that downtime restores the brain’s attention, motivation, productivity, and creativity.

Unfortunately, the benefits of vacation may fade within two to four weeks.

Boys in the Basement and the Default Mode Network

The really interesting research has revealed how much the brain goes on working when we are not concentrating, working, or focusing. A “mysterious and complex circuit stirs to life when people are daydreaming.” This is called the Default Mode Network (DMN).

Immordino-Yang, a research scientist at USC, in a review of research on the DMN, argues that “when we are resting, the brain is anything but idle and that, far from being purposeless or unproductive, downtime is in fact essential to mental processes…”

Other research suggests the Default Mode Network is more active in highly creative people.

Power Naps

So, if we need to turn our DMN loose to do creative things for our brain, we should take more naps. Right? Many studies have established that naps “sharpen concentration and improve the performance of both sleep-deprived and the fully rested…”

Here, the interesting data is in the length if naps. One study looked at 5, 10, 20, and 30-minute naps. The five-minute naps barely improved alertness. Ten minutes and higher increased performance, but the 20 and 30-minute naps were associated with half an hour or more of “sleep inertia” (post-nap grogginess). The study concluded that 7-10-minute naps were best.

 Restorative Breaks and Mindfulness Training

Here’s my favorite. Breaks taken in a natural outdoor setting (vs. in a setting full of city noise and chaos) led to a 3-times greater improvement in memory. I wonder how the sound of my chain saw (requiring ear protection) affects the benefit of the “natural outdoor setting.”

And, finally, “mindfulness training” (sustained focus on one’s thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the present moment) is believed to “improve mental health, hone one’s ability to concentrate, and strengthen memory.”

 The Bonus, “Drifting”

This if from the article in Writer’s Digest. When I read this article several months ago, I shook my head. I didn’t know what to think. I grabbed a pen and wrote in the margins: “What!?” “A disease becomes a cure.” “Really?” And “Procrastinate, just not too long.”

But, after reading the other article on brain research and the benefits of taking breaks, I’m trying to be more open-minded about this approach.

If you haven’t read this article, I urge you to do so. Basically, the author is arguing for an approach to writer’s block where you “give your mind permission to do whatever it wants to fuel your creativity. Simply put, you let it be curious.” (Drifting). In the author’s case, drifting took the form of three days off just to let his curiosity explore.

Near the end of the article, he lists 5 ways to “Drift Like a Pro:”

  • Read a Book About Something New
  • Consume Other Content
  • Meet New People
  • New Experiences
  • Travel

And in a final section, he writes, “Teach yourself to drift, and enjoy the journey.”

It sounds too good to be true. I don’t know if I could trust myself to drift purposefully or return from the journey. I worry that it could be addictive, or the easy way out.


Okay, time for your thoughts:

  1. What kind of “restorative” breaks have you taken or will you take over the Hanukkah – Christmas holiday?
  2. What type of naps, breaks, vacation, meditation, or drifting do you regularly practice to maintain your creativity and productivity during the rest of the year?
  3. BONUS POINTS – What do you think about “drifting?”


This is my last post before the Christmas – New Year’s break. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Productive/Creative New Year! See you in 2022.


This entry was posted in creativity, productivity, Writing by Steve Hooley. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steve Hooley

Steve Hooley is the author of seven short stories published in four anthologies, a Vella serial fiction, and is currently working on the Mad River Magic series – a fantasy adventure series for advanced middle-grade to adults. More details available at:

32 thoughts on “Naps, Breaks, Vacations, and Drifting

  1. Good morning, Steve. Thanks for opening your post this morning with the photo of me! How did you locate it?

    Although you didn’t say it explicitly, you implicitly noted what I was thinking as I read your words this morning. Implementing a practice where one gives themselves permission to let their mental engine cool down actually takes some self-discipline. It would be very easy to slip into a stupor of extended length and mistake it for a restorative period of exponentially increasing hours.

    To answer your question (or one of them anyway), I will occasionally find myself mentally spinning over a number of tasks that seem to demand simultaneous attention. I lay down for a few minutes and mentally sort them out. They can in most cases be prioritized and dispensed with quickly enough that I wonder what the fuss was about.

    As for your chainsaw use, people are a part of nature. I would much rather hear your chainsaw next door than a nearby woodpecker. I am all but certain that you won’t apply your chainsaw to the side of my house. I have no guarantee of that as far as Woody is concerned.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, Cindy, and your family, Steve. See you in 2022!

  2. Good morning, Joe. Thanks for your comments.

    I had to dig deep into the media files here on the Kill Zone library to find your picture. This one was apparently associated with a trip you took to Australia where you were hiding out in disguise from a mob boss who didn’t like the way you described him in one of your stories.

    I like your way of sorting out priorities with an awake nap. I find myself doing that and working on new ideas at night, if I have a period when I can’t get back to sleep.

    Your comment about the woodpeckers made me laugh. We had a little woodpecker years ago, who was destroying the wood trim around multiple windows. I tried everything, including shiny foil hung from the excavations he was creating. I finally had to make him disappear. I think he’s buried in a barrel somewhere in New Jersey.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family, Joe! Have a great holiday. Thanks for all your comments this year. See you in 2022!

  3. As a chronic insomniac, a nap of more than 20 minutes kills sleep for the night for me. Back before I was playing this game we call writing, I had a part-time job doing data entry at home. At 3 in the afternoon, I’d go to my chaise in the bedroom, read, promptly doze off, but pretty reliably woke up within 20 minutes. Any longer and there were what we called “afternoon dreamers”–the kind that were so real you swore you were awake. But the job didn’t require creativity, so no telling what my naps/dozes did for my brain.
    Now, I do most of my reading at bedtime, in bed, so when I fall asleep, I don’t have to do anything that would wake me up. If I do wake up, I grab my iPad mini and read until my brain shuts off and I fall asleep. Maybe if my brain would get busy with authorly creativity, I’d be willing to stay awake, but usually, it’s dwelling on how to solve the problems of the world. I don’t want to write those books.

    • Good points, Terry. I never liked naps when I was young. The “sleep inertia” after a nap was so severe and lasted so long that I felt worse for the rest of the day. Now that I am, uh, older, I take naps occasionally without so much after effects.

      You’ve mentioned in the past that you review your day’s writing at bedtime. Do you ever wake up in the morning with new ideas? – the boys in the basement – Default Mode Network

      Have a great holiday break! See you next year.

  4. Good additional thoughts, Steve, on helping our brain and Boys. I love the power nap. 20 minutes is my norm. An alternative I’ve found that’s just as potent is to lie on the floor with legs up on a bed or chair, and closing my eyes for 5-10 minutes, deep breathing. It rejuvenates wonderfully.

    And “drifting” sounds like another way to get out of your own way and listen to the Boys. Slightly different than the mind mapping approach I prefer, but a suitable adjunct. Anything to get the creativity flowing again is fine by me.

    See you on the other side of the calendar, Steve.

    • Thanks, Jim. Your break with legs up and deep breathing reminded me of my father coming home from his office at lunch, lying down on a recliner backwards, head down, feet up, and taking a 5 minute nap. It worked for him.

      I keep some dumbbells in my office and take a break every hour or so to do some arm exercises and stretches. I guess each writer finds what works for them.

      Thanks for your comments. Have a great holiday break. See you in 22.

    • Good point, MC. I should do that, but always feel like I need to read a craft of writing book or fiction. A good thought for a New Year’s resolution.

      Have a great holiday! See you next year.

  5. Thanks for bringing up possibly THE most important productivity subject for writers, Steve. I wish there was sort of a one-size-fits-all formula for up-time vs down-time in writing, but I don’t think there is. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another… other than no one can work all the time without tiring or flaming out.

    When I’m in production mode (i.e. writing a book), I aim for 3.500 words per day which takes me about five hours. My speed is 900-1,000 words per hour and I give ‘er about 45-50 minutes at a stretch then take a 10 minute or so break. After this, I take downtime by researching, surfing blogs, and generally goofing off like taking my 3 mile per day walk.

    I swear the rest periods and the goof-off walk are the most productive part of my day, and I’d never give them up for “productivity”. Day-napping has never been my thing. Day-dreaming, however, is my default mode. Best to you for 2022 and remember the old Chinese proverb: “May you only have one woodpecker pound on your head at one time.”

    • Thanks, Garry. Good point about one size does not fit all. Thanks for sharing your routine. I like what you said about day-dreaming. My real rejuvenation is afternoon work, outside, doing “strenuous” work (the definition changes as I get older), taking care of my “enchanted forest.” The mindless work allows me to day-dream and put the boys in the basement to work, even when I’m awake.

      If a second woodpecker come knocking, I’ll send him your way. Have a great holiday break! See you in ’22.

  6. This article is the nicest present I could receive. I’m surrounded by “butt in chair” people and for many years have felt like such a slug because I don’t (can’t) do as they do. Your beautiful words now allow me to drift when I need to without feeling so much guilt.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours. And to everyone here at TKZ who make me feel less alone.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Laurie. I’m glad the article today was a “present” for you. And I hope that you are now armed with the research facts that “restorative breaks” ARE healthy and can increase your creativity and productivity.

      Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy, Productive, Creative New Year! I hope you will return to TKZ again in 2022!

  7. Good morning, Steve. Excellent post. Breaks are important. I tend to be a workaholic, so I have to force myself to leave the computer. Spending time with wildlife is my favorite type of break, but since it’s freezing and snowy now, I don’t roam off the property. Doesn’t matter, though. A break is a break. Whenever I’m really stuck, I grab my Kindle. Reading restarts my muse every time.

    During the holidays, I need to step away a lot more. We host a Christmas Eve celebration and there’s cleaning, shopping, cooking, baking, decorating, wrapping, etc to do. I throw on sappy Christmas movies and soak it all in. As long as I write something (a paragraph, a page, two pages) in between, then I won’t lose momentum in the WIP. The trick for me is to not let the WIP remain unopened for more than one or two days.

    Wishing you and yours the merriest of holidays, Steve!

    • Thanks, Sue. Outdoors and wildlife is my favorite break, also. Luckily it is in my own backyard. I find that I need to get myself out of the house at least every 2 or 3 days in the cold weather, or I don’t want to go out at all.

      Your thoughts on staying in the WIP are good ones. I tend to review my outline every night, but I need to write that paragraph or page even when the whole day has been “entertaining.” Thanks for the encouragement.

      Have a wonderful holiday break! See you in ’22.

  8. “the Default Mode Network is more active in highly creative people.”

    Steve, thanks for sharing the term, DMN. That sounds much more official than daydreaming or drifting. “Please do not disturb–my brain is set on DMN.”

    Physical exercise works best for me. Walking, zumba, air-boxing, anything that gets blood pumping fresh oxygen into the brain.

    Naps aren’t great for me b/c of what you accurately term “sleep inertia.”

    Another major creativity boost comes from brainstorming with other writers. It’s the opposite of downtime. We’re all actively throwing out ideas, sharing tips and info, and stirring a big soup pot of creativity. After those sessions, I’m raring to go, eager to try out new solutions. Right now, I’m remembering a recent zoom session with a couple of very smart, creative people!

    Merry Christmas to you and your family. Thanks for all your thought-provoking posts this year!

    • Thanks, Debbie. It’s always good to have data and official names for the processes of creative endeavors. Too many, “get-er-done” people think that what we are doing is easy. Or think that what we “create” has no value.

      I, too, “like” exercise. I don’t always want to start, but I feel so much better when I finish.

      And, yes, brain storming with other writers is one of the best ideas. Thanks for mentioning that one. I live out in the “boonies” with no appropriate writers’ group, so zoom-call brain-storming has been very helpful for me.

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours!

  9. Happy Saturday, Steve! A terrific, informative and helpful post on a topic I’ve neglected too often. I’ll have to find the Michael La Ronn article, I’ve been a fan of his for a while (check out his YouTube channel if you haven’t already). I’d say I refill my creative well by watching and reading engaging stories. These days, mainly mysteries and comedy.

    My breaks from writing are haphazard and often a reaction to a block (I’ve discovered revision block can be a real problem) rather than a deliberate time off. Getting outside is important, and I love doing so after dark, to stargaze with binoculars, telescope or just the naked eye, wandering around my yard, viewing the celestial wonders (when the skies are at least partially clear here in western Oregon).

    I find exercise, walks, Zumba and especially Yoga, very helpful in recharging and letting the denizens of my creative basement work while I’m away.

    As for drifting, I think that’s worth exploring.

    Thank you for all the great posts this year.

    Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! All the best in 2022!

    • Thanks, Dale. Thanks for the tip about Michael La Ronn’s You Tube channel.

      Astronomy is a great idea. The beauty of what’s out there and the vastness of our universe should be both staggering and inspiring. That’s a great idea for inspiration, but I don’t know if I could get myself out there at night. I get in a chair in the evening and start reading and I’m quickly asleep.

      Thanks for your librarian’s perspective post this past year. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! See you in ’22.

  10. Great stuff, Steve!

    My default activity is to research weird animals and bugs. They fascinate me. Been that way since a tadpole.

    Hope you have a great holiday season, and see you next year.


    • Thanks, Deb. And thanks for doing the “Interview your Characters” post this past year (recent past, actually). I’ve reread “Newsletter Ninja” and am getting ready to improve my boring newsletters. I’m going to use your idea for some of my posts.

      Researching animals and bugs sounds interesting. As a writer of fantasy, that might give me some ideas for imaginary characters.

      Hope your hip is rehabbing quickly. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours! See you in ’22.

  11. Good evening, Steve, and thanks for this great article.

    I’m taking a little vacation from writing during the holiday season. There’s so much to do this time of year that I can easily slip into “cerebral congestion” if I don’t back off and give myself a break. Still, I find myself making little notes about possible blog posts or story ideas and enjoying zooming with the creatives I know. 🙂

    I read a Scientific American article about Thomas Edison who apparently took naps throughout the day. The article states that Edison would fall asleep holding a ball in each hand. When one of the balls dropped to the floor, it would wake him up. Evidently, this period of “drifting” into sleep is a highly creative time and waking out of it may result in new ideas. Seems to have worked pretty well for Edison.

    Best wishes for a wonderful Christmas and a healthy and prosperous 2022!

    • Thanks, Kay. It is a great time for a vacation/creativity break. And I’m with you on the taking notes. I have two clipboards going with ideas for ways to improve my newsletters.

      I’d never heard the story about Thomas Edison. Creative way to take a nap. Combine that with his persistence, and we have…

      Wishing you and yours a happy holiday season and a Happy Successful New Year.

  12. My takeaway from your post is that I need to take a vacation every two to four weeks. I like this idea. I shall endeavor to implement it in the new year.

    • Thanks for your comment. I had to chuckle. I hadn’t thought of that angle. I hope you’re self-employed. If you’re successful in pulling off this vacation-a-month plan, please let us know how much it improved your productivity and creativity.

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (full of vacations)!

  13. “Cerebral congestion” jumped out at me. That defines my life. I have lots of breaks from creativity, but NOT the productive kind & I am definitely one who needs to use intentional breaks to boost creativity. 2021 has been one of my least creative years. Not just creativity was impacted–# of books read in 2021 is very, very low compared to past years. It has felt like one of those years where your finger is perpetually inserted in the electric socket & your hair is standing on end.

    As to drifting–one of the advantages of being interested in multiple forms of creativity is that they do feed one another. You may draw or paint a picture and decide to write a poem or short story that goes with it. Or a photographer’s eye just out living day to day life may pick up on something they see that is the seed of a story idea.

    The good news: today is the start of a rare 2 week break off of work for me. I am intentionally NOT putting myself under pressure by setting creative goals for myself. Yet on my first day I can feel a little spark of creativity starting to wiggle around in my brain. I posted a creative challenge to some friends to try to encourage them to participate in some form of creativity in this last 2 weeks of the year–writing or creative form (BTW thanks to JSB for mentioning The Storymatic, because that’s a tool I’m using for that challenge). Whether or not I do any writing isn’t the point of this break–I simply want to clear out a year’s worth of cerebral congestion and prime the creative pump for 2022.

    Napping hasn’t worked for me creatively and getting better at mindfulness and meditation is on my list of to-do’s. Sometimes walks aid creativity, sometimes not–goes back to that cerebral congestion thing. Bottom line–we do need to break up our routines somehow because getting stuck in a rut kills creativity.

    • Thanks, BK. Sorry 2021 was such a bad year for you. I hope the two week break you have coming will refill the well of ideas for creative endeavors. It sounds like an early start to your New Years resolutions.

      I really like the concept of multiple forms of creativity feeding one another. We get so bogged down with working on one thing, when we would probably be better to explore a whole range of creative outlets.

      Enjoy your two week rejuvenation. Have a Merry Christmas and a Creative and Happy New Year!

  14. Edison would often fall asleep before he’d eaten lunch. A co-worker would sometimes swap TAE’s full plate for an empty one. When Edison awoke, he’d push away the plate and say, “Well, boys, let’s get cracking!”

    I’m writing a paper on Creativity and the Guardienne, AKA “automatic self,” AKA “adaptive unconscious”, which may be similar to the Default Mode Network. I’ve devoted a section to Brainstorming, whose effects persist for up to an hour. It’s like a micro vacation.

    I live about 8 minutes from a botanic garden, an ideal place to wander in search of inspiration or just escape.

    I let my Guardienne direct my creative life. It’s responsible for Creativity, and I think it has some idea of what I need to do. I once felt like carving 3″x3″ Celtic knot plaques for a month. Sometimes I paint or I design book covers. Once, I used Popsicle sticks to make a mobile with little biplanes and clouds penned with well-known flight poems. Another time, I signed up for an Artist’s Way course. Fun is important.

    See Julia Cameron’s “Artist’s Way” for more thoughts. See also and you’ll know why I hang out here.

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