Random moments of “unproductive” time don’t just make you healthier, happier and more resilient. They help you work smarter, too. Here are 5 ways to take a break and boost creativity.
Cut Yourself Some Slack
Rather than always trying to pack more into your days, start projects early and generously enough that you can afford to schedule ample downtime between focused work sessions. If you are given to procrastination, try scheduling some mini “get-started” sessions that last only 30 minutes or so, rather than repeatedly telling yourself you’ll start later and then attempt to finish a big job in one marathon session. Studies suggest that after 90 minutes of focused effort, your ability to think clearly diminishes, and you become far more likely to become distracted or make mistakes.
Shift Gears, Don’t Grind Them
When you notice your attention drifting or your energy waning, instead of seeing it as a problem and fighting it, consider it an opportunity and invitation to capture some high-value restorative and brain-ordering synaptic activity. By putting your work down for 15 to 20 minutes — whether you choose to stare out the window, play ping pong, sort vacation photos or engage in some water-cooler joshing around — you’ll be giving your body and brain a chance to complete essential behind-the-scenes activities that prepare you to return to work with more capacity, creativity and gusto. Even switching work tasks (from writing a report to doing your filing or making some phone calls, for example), may provide enough mental relief to let you return to your more challenging task somewhat refreshed.
Seize the Moment
There’s some real wisdom in the age-old advice to “stop and smell the roses.” Pleasure triggers a “go” signal in the body, activating reward centers in our brains and releasing feel-good chemicals into our bloodstream that can make us more energized and effective. (For more on that, search for “A Real Pleasure.”) The trick is to notice pleasure, enjoyment and fun as it’s happening. Hear your favorite song on the radio? Turn it up and dance. Hear a group of coworkers laughing in the hallway? Go join them. Tuning in to and actively basking in enjoyment that just happens — even if it means taking a break from some more “productive” task — is the best way to experience it more profoundly, and more often. Savoring such small infusions of pleasure helps bolster creativity and productivity, suggests social psychologist Sonya Lyubomirsky, PhD. So make a point of actively seeking out and experiencing some moments of pleasure every day.
Performing random acts of kindness is a great way to shift your energy, experience a surge of pleasure — and harvest the biochemical benefits. Studies done at the University of Michigan provide evidence for a phenomenon known as the “helpers’ high,” in which your body releases a variety of feel-good endorphins into your bloodstream and brain, bringing on mild euphoria, relieving stress and pain, boosting immunity, and possibly even helping to lower blood pressure.
Hold doors open for people, allow merging traffic to merge, offer to help someone with a heavy box — even if it slows you down a little. Just taking the time to pay someone an authentic compliment or express appreciation can give you a day-boosting surge of enjoyment and energy.
Get High on Exercise
Building bouts of activity into your day is a great way to keep your energy high. Even moderate exercise has been linked to production of the neurotransmitters involved in an upbeat mood and emotional balance: dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. “As we exercise, brain cells are pushed to release more neurotransmitters — so they act like Prozac and Ritalin at just the right dose,” explains Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown and Company, 2008).
The latest documented benefit of exercise is what Ratey calls the marijuana factor. “Physical exertion stimulates endocannabinoids, our body’s own internal marijuana,” he says. “One of the areas marijuana attaches to is the reward and pleasure centers — and our natural version is released whenever we stretch and strain.” With the ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, these natural pleasure molecules are released into the brain itself. New studies, says Ratey, also show that exercise stimulates brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF, a synapse-building protein that he describes as being “like Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
So consider taking regular breaks during your workday to walk briskly outside, run a few flights of stairs, or do a set or two of pushups in your office. (For more tips on incorporating movement into your daily schedule, search for “Workday Workouts.”) Or schedule a massage, a facial or bodywork during your midafternoon slump. Your body will repay you with high-value energy that might otherwise have been frittered away.