Why Getting Distracted May Be the Key to Productivity


We live in a culture that glorifies being busy. We announce to-do lists with pride, we one-up colleagues who bemoan working over-time. We say, “You think you’re tired? Well, I slept for four hours last night!” We’ve mastered the art of complaining and boasting at the same time. Being overworked, stressed out, and in high demand has become a symbol of success.

There’s something about feeling busy that feeds our ego. “Feeling busy and overworked may make us feel in demand and scarce, and therefore more valuable and important,” said Silvia Belleza, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School. She led a study on new marketing tactics that target the busy lives of consumers as a status symbol. Being busy and in-demand must mean that we are valuable, right?

Naturally, conquering a full calendar and packed schedule makes us feel productive. It feels good to be accomplishing tasks and to be making strides professionally. That busyness, however, has consequences: it’s called burnout. You may have heard of it.

Burnout is the result of being busy for too long. It saps creativity, zaps productivity, and makes everyday tasks feel 10 times harder. For many of us who equate busyness with success, taking a break to avoid burnout is out of the question. But believe it or not, breaks are necessary for success, and there are some real facts to back it up.

Pushing ourselves to work non-stop for hours on end may seem like the best way to accomplish goals, but science suggests otherwise. Actually, working without breaks can lead to poor work performance. In one recent study, Dr. Simone Richard revealed that creative discoveries occur after a period of refraining from task-related conscious thought. Basically, giving your mind a break from the work at hand actually produces better results.

According to this study, allowing the conscious mind to wander is a form of “incubation,” a stage in the creative process where attention is diverted away from work. Incubation is followed by illumination, where a creative idea flashes into your mind and ultimately facilitates your work. Dr. Richard explained, “Engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to significant increases in creative solutions to the target problems as compared to the demanding task, rest, and no break conditions.”

Consider it for yourself — have you ever discovered or realized a solution to a problem while taking a shower or going for a walk? Dr. Richard argues that stepping away allows the subconscious mind to continue processing your work in a stress-free manner. After a period of distraction, your subconscious presents a solution to your conscious thoughts.

It’s a theory that is backed by famous creators. Author J.K. Rowling conceived the Harry Potter series on a train, saying, “The idea for Harry Potter fell into my head.” Musician Paul McCartney came up with “Let It Be” in a state between deep sleep and insomnia.

All of this suggests that learning when to take a break is vital for work performance. Knowing when you’ve reached your limit means cutting yourself some slack and excluding yourself from the influence of our busy-obsessed culture. When you hit a wall and your wheels are spinning, get distracted. Take a walk, practice guitar, listen to music, draw, organize your workspace, talk with friends, prepare a meal — whatever it is, let your mind wander.

Rest is not the antithesis of work, it’s an equal partner. When we balance work with rest, we allow our creativity to reach its fullest potential. Give yourself permission to take a break and know it’ll benefit you in the long run.

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