To be a writer you have to write, of course. But you can’t simply write a paragraph and call yourself a writer.
Arguably, to truly be a writer you have to write more than a book too. You have to write and then keep writing. The same is true of painting, sculpting, performing, and even teaching.
This is also true of creativity: if you want to be creative you have to continuously work on it. But breaks are good for creativity too, it turns out.
Researchers have shown that taking breaks provides the brain with precious time for idea incubation. Breaks allow us to literally break the cycle of thinking that often causes symptoms such as writer’s block. When we break out of our current processes of thinking, it allows moments of eureka-like insights to occur.
What commonly happens for the amateur – or naive – creative is that he or she takes a break, and then another break, and then – before long – there’s too much other stuff to do and not enough time or focus to get back on the creative work.
We know this is a problem for creativity (apart from the obvious reasons of procrastination) because it trains us to be short-term with our thinking. As a result of breaks becoming more of habit and less of utility, our attention waivers at the slightest flash, beep, or craving.
You know what I’m talking about. Right now you’re likely tempted to check your phone, or email, or another website. To close the window, or open a new one, or get up from your desk altogether. If you’ve made it this far without jumping away: congratulations. Keep reading.
Scientists have shown that persistence pays off for creative work; those that can consistently show-up to do a task without distraction tend to fair better and produce more creative results.
This sounds conflicting at first however. Research shows that we need breaks in order to allow ideas to incubate, but additional research indicates that we should be persistent if we’re to gain the benefits of what psychologists and neurologists refer to as “working memory.”
It’s working memory that is failing when you walk into a room and immediately forget why you did so.
Working memory is also attributed to our ability to work on something while, at the same time, recall more distant memories or ideas that can be tied to the work.
So what do we need to do if we want to be the best creatives we can be: take more breaks or be more persistent?
Essentially this is how creative ideas fully come about: as a result of you being focused and persisting in the work, but at the same time being able to subconsciously recall additional information through working memory without being distracted by that information.
Professional creatives are those who have found the proper balance of persisting through problems or projects with taking the much-needed breaks that yield powerful insights.
Even those who have found a balance still struggle to maintain it from time-to-time. Sometimes the distractions are too plentiful or the work is too enticing.
But it’s from years of dedication to the work that the best creatives have thrived. Only from those years of dedication have the creative greats throughout history realized the power of both persistence and idleness.
By taking well-timed breaks (and that’s key here: timed breaks), then returning to the work, you ensure that you are giving yourself the time to let thoughts simmer, give your brain a break, and also that you continue on with the work.
Sometimes the work takes only a few hours, other times it can take months or years. The point to remember is that you have to keep returning to the work.
When the work is completed, the ideas are overflowing, or success has been unburied, the great creatives understand that those moments are breaks too. Breaks from the larger body of work: of becoming a writer, a painter, an artist, a dancer, a musician, or whatever else.
If you want to be creative – or a successful creative worker – you have to decide now, today, that you’ll keep showing up. Then, when you start feeling exhausted or stuck, taking a timed break and coming back to keep working.
Lamp icon by David Papworth.