take a break and let your mind wander
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Take a Break and Let Your Mind Wander (Some Counterintuitive Productivity Advice)

Laura MacPherson January 3, 2019

When we have a full task list, we know we need to focus to get it all done. We know we should close email, turn off notifications, and place our phones away from our desks. The more focused we are, the more productive we are — right? Sometimes.

Focusing is essential for tasks that involve knowledge work, like writing, putting together reports, and evaluating data. Without focus, we waste time. Our minds switch between getting the work done and the myriad distractions we allow into our environments. But what about problem-solving, planning, and other activities that are more creative and forward-thinking? It turns out that focus won’t help us there. The best thing you can do when you need to come up with new ideas is to take a break and let your mind wander.

A Relaxed Mind Boosts Creative Problem-Solving

Paracelsus, a 16th-century German-Swiss physician, wrote, “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.” He hadn’t tested this hypothesis, but today’s researchers have. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah who specializes in attention, has demonstrated the power of slowing down, spending time in nature, and allowing our minds to relax. An experiment involving Outward Bound participants resulted in 50% better performance on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking.

Strayer’s research explores the attention restoration theory proposed by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, environmental psychologists at the University of Michigan. They’ve proposed that the visual elements in nature serve to relax our brains just enough to enter a creative, reflective mode.

Relaxing Outdoors Increases Our Ability to Connect Ideas

A significant portion of creativity involves connecting concepts. When we’re able to take insights from disparate sources and connect them, we come up with new ideas. A recent study in Frontiers in Psychology revealed that students who participated in an outdoor education program reported feeling greater competence. They were also better able to create cohesive stories about what they learned, with more detail.

Three Ways to Get the Most from Mind-Wandering Breaks

Chris Bailey, in his new book, Hyperfocus, presents three ways we can best use mind-wandering breaks to increase creativity and problem-solving.

1. Letting Your Mind Wander Freely and Capturing What Arises

This strategy is ideal for uncovering what’s just beneath the surface of your mind and exploring it. It’s classic mindfulness — observing the thoughts that come and go and getting curious about them. It can also serve as a method of giving your brain space to remember things you wanted to do, but forgot. While your mind is wandering, write down what comes up so your brain is free to continue its wandering without worrying you’ll forget something important.

2. Hold a Problem Loosely in Your Mind and Let Your Mind Wander Around It

With this method, you set an intention to consider a problem, but you don’t focus on it. Instead, you take a walk, go hiking, or participate in some other physical activity, and you simply enjoy the activity while holding the problem in the back of your mind. You’ll find your mind wandering to the problem and mulling it over. Often, after a good night’s sleep, this loose mental work will result in an insight you hadn’t had previously.

3. Allow Your Mind to Work While You Do a Habit-Based Task

It’s no surprise that we get ideas while in the shower or while cleaning the house. These tasks are habitual. We do them without thinking, so our minds are free to work on other things. Often, we listen to a podcast or watch TV or check our social feeds while doing mindless tasks, and these activities keep our attention occupied. Instead, during these habitual tasks, try allowing your mind to wander freely, and be sure to capture ideas that come up. By giving your attention a break, your mind is able to work creatively.

Once you’ve come up with your new idea, solved your problem, or completed your planning, you can go back to focus mode to accomplish the tasks associated with it. Working this way will allow your brain to perform precisely as it needs to, when it needs to.

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