An optimal work-and-create flow is an extended period of time in which your mind and body are performing at their best when engaged in high-thinking and high-imagining tasks and projects. You sustain focus, your body’s fire stays stoked, your attitude flourishes, your imagination hangs from the monkey bars.
But most of us know that pulling all-nighters and pumping our bodies with caffeine does not an optimal work-and-create flow make.
Here’s a quick review of relevant studies and my suggestions.
THE YOUTHFUL BRAIN IS FASTER BUT... not necessarily better (and working 16-hour days is not necessarily more productive). I know numerous twenty-something who champion their 16-hour work days and Silicon Valley-like war stories of all-nighters to innovate a software product. Among twenty-somethings, to work-and-crash is cool.
If you’ve reached the middle years and bemoan your inability to think quickly or work as hard as you used to, take note of psychologist Sherry Willis’s longitudinal study of cognitive performance, the Seattle Longitudinal Study. For more than 40 years, this study has tracked the cognitive performance of over 6,000 healthy men and women.
True, most twenty-something brains process information more efficiently. But not necessarily more effectively.
When it comes to verbal memory, spatial orientation, inductive reasoning, and vocabulary, this group’s 45-year-old selves way outperform their 25-year-old selves. Peak performance in these areas occurs between 40 and 65, according to Willis in her book Life in the Middle.
Take-away: If you’re middle-aged and blush because you seem to work more slowly, take heart. You’re likely working at far more effective, complex levels than your younger co-workers. It’s not only okay to take breaks during your work flow. It’s recommended if you want to perform at your best.
BREAK WITH RHYTHM. Our bodies and minds have natural rhythms of optimal performance. For most of us, those rhythms are in 90-minute to 2-hour increments. Our natural rapid-eye-movement dream cycles, for instance, typically flow in 90-minute waves.
Madeline, a client and designer, sets her Enso meditation timer at 90 minutes when she sits down to work on a project. When the timer gongs, she steps away from her desk and usually steps outdoors for a cup of green tea.
Smart move, according to psychobiologist Ernst Rossi, in private practice, and K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer.
Rossi champions the 20-Minute Break in his book of the same name for peak performance. And Anders et al studied in 1993 a group of violinists and discovered that the best performers practiced in 90-minute intervals and learned not to over-practice.
So, if you want to sustain your momentum over the long haul—over fifty, sixty years, say, and not just one glorious decade—then take breaks now.
We can break down that 90-minute rhythm even further into 25-minute spurts. Most people can pay attention to a talk for 25 minutes (hence, the brilliance of TED Talks’ 17-minute limit).
Hence, another client, a highly reputed novelist and short story writer, wisely writes in three 25-minute periods—each divided with a timer. At the end of the third period, she takes a walk or switches to another activity.
Take-away tips: I recommend to clients they remove themselves from the work environment if possible.
For a corporate client, I recommended he schedule a walk to another part of his vast office quarters, glance out a floor-to-ceiling window, and then return to his office room, sit in a comfortable sofa normally reserved for clients, and remember the last time he was outdoors working on his ranch—one of his favorite activities.
Step outdoors if you can. I suggested that one client who gets overwhelmed with multiple tasks in the afternoon to step outdoors and sit in her garden for fifteen minutes and simply observes the colors, textures, sounds, and smells. Ideally, she would weed for fifteen minutes as the physical activity more likely will let her processor mind incubate some of her creative problems.
Or step away from your work space, and read four pages from a book that brings you delight.
If you can jog or bicycle for 20 minutes, even better—as you’re also increasing the chances of your hippocampus forging new neurons in your middle-aged gray matter, according to Fred Gage of the Salk Institute and other researchers who’ve examined the benefits of intentional, enjoyable cardiovascular exercise.
Try iRest if you work alone. Richard Miller has developed a whole enterprise and training program devoted to active naps he calls iRest—based on an ancient practice called the Yoga of Deep Sleep. In an iRest nap, you never actually fall asleep. Instead, you enter a state of deeply relaxed awareness.
DISTRACTION CAN RE-BOOT LONG-TERM FOCUS. Here’s a mind-twister: Atsunori Ariga and Alejandro Lleras of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States questioned the assumption that loss of focus came from, say, fatigue or lack of attention. In 2010, their study published in Cognition concluded that a deliberate distraction or introduction of a second task actually can increase vigilant attention on the first task.
Let’s say you’re trying to resolve or research a high-thinking problem. Your mind commits to the task: Resolve problem, resolve problem. You’re researching online using Google scholar and your JSTOR reserves. But after an hour or two, your mind unconsciously will become habituated to the reading and sort of “tune out.”
Then, 45 minutes later you decide to check the headlines at The Daily Beast to catch up on political gossip or you decide to call a client to get an answer on another project.
No real harm, according to Ariga and Lleras, as long as such breaks are rare and deliberate. And as long as the type of second task does not lead to prolonged distraction.
In fact, according to this study, rare and deliberate breaks re-boot your vigilant commitment to complete your goal. The second task off-sets the mind’s tendency to “habituate” or get accustomed to a certain groove of thinking.
Habituation is your unconscious mind’s blasé adolescent response of “Been there, done that” (when in fact it has not been there or done that).
But, remember, introducing a quick, deliberate second task is not the same as multi-tasking, and it is not the same as being mindlessly distracted.
Take-away tip: Pay attention to when you need to introduce a quick second task. Maybe sending off an email or text message will free up mental bandwidth and get you re-committed to the high-thinking task. Do this in tandem with the “Break with Rhythm” suggestions above.
THE FULL MONTE NAP: In some work environments, taking a 20-minute break still might be risky. Taking a real nap might be tantamount to losing a job. And many psychologists recommend not taking a full nap because doing so will make you feel groggy. Personally, I agree.
Still, sleep expert and psychologist Sara Mednick’s research begs to differ. She gave students a series of creative problem-solving tasks. Some students took no naps. Some students took catnaps. And some students took full-fledged 90-minute naps complete with REM dreams.
The results? Only those students who took the full REM-level naps showed boosts in creative problem-solving performance.
Take-away: When you can take an extended creative or working retreat such as an 48-hour in-house retreat, include an afternoon 90-minute nap. Then move from lounge to desk. Your unconscious very well might untangle some of your conscious problems.
ENJOY YOUR EVENINGS. According to organization psychologist Sabine Sonnentag at the University of Konstanz, Germany, people who disengage from thinking about their work during the evening are routinely happier and more refreshed the next day.
Take-away tip: Schedule non-digital time in the evenings, especially 45 minutes before sleep. Set up a bi-weekly schedule of evening rhythms: One Monday as “reading night,” One Tuesday as “date night,” et cetera. If you must work some evenings, schedule work evenings. Make them the exception instead of the rule.
Remember, make space for pockets of wonder, pockets of silence, and pockets of play. There's only one day like today. Make the day a piece of art worth remembering.
Your Turn: What am I missing here when it comes to taking regular but not rigid—i.e., rhythmic—breaks? What gets in your way of taking the breaks you know your mind and body need to shape an optimal work-and-create flow? What rhythmic break rules do you follow so you can create at your best?
See you in the woods,
Jeffrey Davis is a creativity consultant, book-shaper, and speaker. He shows artists, social change-makers, and people with bright ideas for art, books & business how to thrive amidst challenge.