Give Me a Break!

Why the Mind Wandering Worker Wins.

There are two types of workers in the world. Those who spend every
waking moment of their day trying to focus on the task at hand and those
who seem to waltz around the office as if they were on holiday. The
former can often be found grazing on snacks at their desk to remove the
need for a lengthy lunch break, while the latter can sometimes spend
more time making coffee than doing their actual job. If you have ever
worked in an office environment, you can probably relate to these
stereotypes. The real question is, which one are you?

There is no doubt that the hard working, no-break-taking contingent of
the workforce secretly thinks that their counterparts are simply a bunch
of slackers. This is certainly understandable! However, as an
unashamed office waltzer myself, I feel a certain responsibility to
advocate for my fellow break-takers. After all, science has a lot to say in
our favour.

How Does Your Brain Work?

First of all, let’s take a look at how your brain actually works. You are
probably most familiar with the type of thinking in which you encounter a
problem, decide how to solve it, and then work toward that solution. This
happens every day when you sit down to write a report or prepare a
presentation. This is known as linear, or analytical, thinking.

When you think in a linear way, your brain uses a mechanism called top-
down control. In essence, the executive function regions of your brain
(e.g., the Prefrontal Cortex; the Anterior Cingulate Cortex; and the
Orbitofrontal Cortex) interpret incoming information and create a plan of action. They then send neural signals to other brain regions to perform
the required actions. This whole process is experienced by the person
as analytical thinking.

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These executive function brain regions operate a lot like an executive
team in a large organisation. They interpret and scope incoming
information and commission other units in the organisation to undertake
a task. In the organisational context, as well as within the brain, this
process is limited in that it can only handle a small volume of information
and is subject to a collection of biases. On the brain side of things, our
biases may make us fearful of uncertain or new situations, overconfident
in our own area of expertise, and easily swayed by popular opinion.
These biases tend to ensure that we stick to solutions that we have
come across in the past. Put simply, when we think in a linear fashion,
we struggle to think outside of the box and we fail to come up with
innovative solutions.

How do you Think Creatively?

To solve this problem, we must turn away from linear (top-down) thinking
and toward something called bottom-up processing. Returning to the
organisational analogy, imagine a workplace in which each unit
spontaneously came up with and executed ideas individually. This might
look a little like a research university with multiple independent units that
work toward the same ends. They have shared goals but do not report
directly to a central executive team.

The brain is able to achieve this by taking advantage of a process called
bottom-up processing. You might not realise it, but your brain is
constantly working on problems in the background. It does so while you
sleep, while you are commuting, and even while you are making yourself
a cup of coffee at work. This all happens unconsciously and without
input from your executive brain regions. It sounds mysterious, but you probably experience it all the time. It is that experience when an idea or
insight comes to you spontaneously.

As an example from when I was working as a researcher, I remember
being asked to undertake a painstaking procedure in which I
systematically cleaned and reordered a large dataset. My superiors
explained that this way the best method they were aware of, so I sat
down and began working. After two days of monotonous linear work, I
still could not shake the feeling that there must be a better way.
Thankfully, this feeling would soon be rewarded. As I was taking one of
my regular coffee breaks, I had a sudden insight. I recalled from an
earlier programming class that there was a set of functions that might be
able to automate the entire process. Energised, I set about writing a few
short lines of code that rapidly performed the task that I had spent the
last two days working on. Importantly, this little innovation could be used
for all future data driven projects, saving the team a great many hours.
Naturally, this was not a profound innovation worthy of acclaim. Instead,
it is a good example of those everyday innovations that companies can
foster if they set the right culture. This seemingly simple process, when
implemented at scale, can be the difference that facilitates those
innovative leaps in logic that set you and your organisation apart.

Does Taking a Break Improve Productivity?

Taking a break is an excellent way to rejuvenate the depleted cognitive
resources of your brain. The feeling of fatigue is actually your brains
method of re-routing your attention away from a particular task in order
to promote recovery.

Think back to the last time you looked out over an airport runway? You
probably saw an orchestra of planes taking off and coming into land in
perfect synchrony. But did you spare a thought for the conductor of this
symphony? These unsung heroes are the air traffic controllers who carefully manage the airspace to ensure that every plane has an open
runway at the exact right time.

It’s a complicated and high-risk job. This is reflected in their break
schedules. Unlike your average attorney, doctor, or business analyst,
some airports have required air traffic controllers to work on the following
schedule: they will communicate with pilots for 40 minutes, coordinate
flights for 40 minutes, and then they will take a 40-minute break. If an
office worker adopted this schedule, they would be labelled as lazy! And
yet, there are some very good reasons for all those breaks.

When people spend an extended amount of time performing a particular
task, their brain will begin to fatigue. You may recognize this as the
moment in which your mind starts to wander off task. You may find
yourself having to re-read sentences or splash water on your face. At
this point, you have a few options. Either you persist with the task at
hand, despite the apparent mental barrier, or you switch tasks or simply
take a break.

Scientists are beginning to realise that this state of mind wandering may
represent your brain’s attempt to restore mental function. It is
purposefully redirecting your attention so that it can clear away the toxic
proteins that are causing your brain fog. If you persist, the fog will
thicken and you will continue to operate at a suboptimal level. If you take
a break or swap tasks, you can come back refreshed.

And so, the next time you feel compelled to “grind” your way through a
seemingly impossible task, it might be worth taking the time to take a
break. Let your unconscious mind do the work – you can thank it later.

Things to remember:

  • Science is on the side of the break-takers.
  • When you feel fatigued, the best option is to take a break or swap tasks.
  • If you want to think innovatively, you need to approach work in a different way.

If the science of innovation is something you want to delve further into,
you may be interested in our brand new course focused exclusively on
this topic, to be released at the start of May, 2021. You can find the link
on our website.

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