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.
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
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:
- What kind of “restorative” breaks have you taken or will you take over the Hanukkah – Christmas holiday?
- 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?
- 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.