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Big Ideas

The Value of Taking a Productive Pause

Use the natural wiring of your brain to your advantage and wrangle that illusive problem-solving insight by taking a break and being open to serendipity.

Stories about creative insight often involve some kind of “productive pause,” or what psychologists call an incubation period. Archimedes, who was given the task of measuring the volume of an oddly-shaped golden crown, had his flash when stepping into a bath. Kekule was said to have thought of the structure of benzene while riding on a bus.

And chances are, you have had some issue plague you that has resolved itself while you were away from the problem taking a walk, sitting in a bath, or lying on a couch.

There are several reasons why this time away from the problem is helpful, but let me start out with a brief description of what is not happening.

Many people have a strange model of what our unconscious mind does. We assume that there is some army of smart thinkers that are working hard on our behalf while we are occupied with other pursuits. Eventually, one of those thinkers comes up with a great idea and sends it up to our conscious awareness and we have a flash of insight.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. Incubation helps, but not because we have our own army working for us to solve problems. Instead, there are several other reasons productive pauses are valuable.

Resetting the Mind.

Your memory is competitive. When you start thinking about a problem, certain ideas jump to the forefront. They leap to mind both because they are related to the description of the problem, and because they successfully tamp down (or inhibit) competing memories. Once memory has been inhibited, it has a hard time reaching your awareness, even if the information from that memory might be crucial for solving a problem.

Incubation helps, but not because we have our own army working for us to solve problems.

When you walk away from a problem and think about something else, your memory resets. The ideas that dominated your thinking recede from your thoughts. The memories that were inhibited before gradually become more accessible. If your thoughts return to the problem after a pause, those other memories now have a chance to influence your thinking.

Changing the Description.

Think about vegetables, and your memory will be filled with situations in which you encountered vegetables. Think about birthday parties, and memories about birthday parties spring to mind. The way you describe a problem you are solving influences what you are thinking about.

Often, when you start solving a problem, the description you begin with is fairly specific. You frame the problem in terms of the domain in which the problem is set. If you are trying to build a better vacuum cleaner, you think about bags, suction, and dirt.

When you take some time away from the problem, some of those details fade away, and the description of the problem gradually changes and becomes more abstract. You may shift from thinking about suction and bags to separating dirt from air. As those details change, the memories you pull up change as well. That leads to new insights.

The way you describe a problem you are solving influences what you are thinking about.

The Role of Serendipity.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t come up with a good way to think about the problem. You are just stuck. In those times, the productive pause brings you into contact with lots of things in the world. And one of those chance encounters can lead to insight.

There is a lot of research on opportunistic planning demonstrating that when you have a goal you need to satisfy, you notice things in your environment that will help you to solve the problem. When you need to mail a letter, it increases the chances you will notice a mailbox that you pass on the street.

Similarly, when you are stuck with a problem that needs a creative solution, it will increase the odds that you will notice something in your world that can lead to a problem-solving insight. Archimedes had likely stepped into a bath hundreds of times, but only when he was puzzled about measuring volume did the rise in water level capture his attention.

So, the next time you are stuck on a problem, take a break. Even though there isn’t an army of problem solvers working behind the scenes, you still may find value in that pause.

How about you?

Has taking a “productive pause” helped you solve a problem?

More Posts by Art Markman

Comments (17)
  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    “The more we think of our problems, the more the solutions become elusive.” Well, I think it’s only a natural phenomenon and it’s really good for us because it serves as a reminder that we’re only human beings and we get tired, so a short break from bothersome stuff will help us to regenerate ourselves and recollect our thoughts again. Yes, productive pause helps me solve my problems most of the time, specially when I’m experiencing creative blocks

  • Camilo Zuluaga Agudelo

    The pause after receiving the analized information, is the best way that helps me to solve problems! Very good articule thanks!

  • Daniel Chinchilla

    Definitely. Just walking outside the office to receive sun its more than enough for me to capture some ideas. Of course a lot of times answers just don´t want to show up, but at least you relax to get back to work. In any way is ALWAYS helpful. Nice article!

  • Aaron Morton

    Good article and it is also the case that the immediate ‘brainstorming’ period will utilise the pre-frontal cortex, while the insight moments are elicited from what you have explained greatly in the article.

    Thank you,
    The Confidence Lounge

  • Jamie Leger

    yes absolutely. I even have found it especially helpful to sit in stillness before and after work blocks. It’s something magical. I can never explain it, but it is truly amazing.

  • spravka

    I like your blog,thanks for sharing this blog..

  • BK Earthling

    this is so true and i use the breaks and works every time !!

  • Heather Physioc

    I do find that taking a break helps me solve tricky problems. It’s not always the “go grab lunch and come back” kind of break though. I sometimes find I need to gobble up all the information about the problem I can, then completely walk away from it. I put it out of my head, do other things for a day or two, sleep on it, and usually come back with what I’m confident is the right decision. Granted, that kind of time isn’t always available to solve tricky problems… 🙂

  • @mcfaddenteaches

    Great post! This reminds of when, Henry Ford once said he didn’t want executives who had to work all the time. He insisted that those who were always in a flurry of activity at their desks were not being the most productive. He wanted people who would clear their desks, prop their feet up and dream some fresh dreams. His philosophy was that only he who has the luxury of time can originate a creative thought.

  • Lenticular Image Printing

    I think this is really a very nice post.

  • Ashutosh Dave

    A really great post! That’s why taking a break is so necessary!

  • Справка

    I would like to appreciate your work and would like to tell to my friends.

  • Справка

    I am very much overwhelmed by your thoughts for this particular story

  • Kz

    When we are struck, its kind of like looking the world with a microscope. It enables us to see a problem in details, but prevents us to see its whole shape as well. Keeping distance from a problem gives us an opportunity to have a new insight. good article.

  • Bahar yılmaz

    Great Post!! This is my 2nd article.I came across to 99u today. This article caught my eye (randomly!?!) first of. How relevant those both!! Right on time. Just what I needed. Most likely, this is “my break” .

  • Aurora

    Yes! I definitely prefer taking breaks. It kind of feels as if I can see the labyrinth from above and by doing this I find the way out. By not taking breaks and staying inside of it, it’s harder to find your way.

    It kind of reminds me of the “jamais vu” experiences…like when you know the name of something but cannot remember it no matter how hard you think. Then, while you do something else, it is as if you brain brought it up magically.

  • Molly Dutch

    Yes, 😉 Thank you.

  • Caity FitzGerald

    Almost every project that I work on as a graphic/web designer has improved when I do walk away, even if it’s just for an hour. I often change tasks or completely take the afternoon off when I find myself beginning to force the inspiration and it’s becoming stressful. When I was a writer, my best writing would occur before bed when I’ve stopped thinking about it.

  • Chintan C.

    it has given a identity to our tackling of problems,

  • Andrew Tarvin

    My “productive pause” is stripping down naked (hear me out) and stepping into the shower. It’s a of “creative pause”:

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