Most of us have a grueling view of productivity – getting things done at work is a daunting task and it's best to put our nose to the grindstone and churn it out. We hear experts tell us how to rigidly structure our calendar to make time for the serious work of completing a project or task. We are told that, when it comes time for serious work, we need to shut off our phones, close our doors and switch off our email function – better yet unplug the Internet connection entirely. While this approach may be true in certain circumstances, it’s possible that occasional, well-timed interruptions might actually enhance the quality of our work – especially when that work is creative.
A team of researchers led by Sophie Ellwood wanted to examine the effects of a short break on individual creative output. Ellwood and her team assembled 90 undergraduate psychology students and divided them into three groups. Each group was tasked with completing an Alternate Use Test – a common measurement of divergent thinking. Each group was given four minutes to think of as many possible uses for a sheet of paper as they could, but how those minutes were structured varied. The first group was able to focus on the problem for four continuous minutes. The second group was stopped at the two minute mark and asked to complete a different but similar creativity test, before being given their last two minutes to focus on the uses of paper. The last group was also interrupted, but instead of a related test, they were asked to complete the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which was considered unrelated to the creativity test.
When Ellwood’s team analyzed the results, they found that the continuously focused group actually scored the lowest, generating only an average of 6.9 ideas. The group given the other creativity test during their break generated 7.6 ideas. Surprisingly, the group that was interrupted and asked to fill out an unrelated inventory actually generated the most ideas, averaging 9.8 ideas in their four minutes.
One possibly explanation for the results is the concept of incubation, specifically the notion that, during incubation periods in creative tasks, the mind “selectively forgets” what was tried before. Often when we’re told to put our head down and focus on a task, we arrive at the same wrong solution of inappropriate options again and again. Taking a short break and focusing on something unrelated allows our minds to relax and makes it more likely that, when we return to the original work, our mind will explore new possibilities and abandon the old, wrong ideas.
In the modern world of work, interruptions are inevitable. Despite our temptation to fight against them and shut ourselves off from the world to focus, Ellwood’s research suggests that we work with our interruptions – checking emails or engaging in casual chats whenever we’ve hit an impasse and need to let our minds lose focus and gain creativity.