Of all the tactics on how to focus your creativity, there is one that shines above all the others as the most useful and impactful in my life. It has taken time to find how to use it to actually improve how much work I get done, while also giving my mind the stimulus it craves. I use active breaks as a reward for staying on task for at least 25 minutes (a pomodoro) but only get to take one if I have truly stayed focused and been productive the full allotted time. Over time, this trains your brain, like Pavlov’s dog, to be on task knowing that a stimulus treat is coming soon. Before we go too far into the benefits, what exactly is an active break?
Most jobs will not allow for you to go for a 5 min jog every 25 min, or even stop working necessarily, but waiting to walk over to a co-workers desk to chat with them about a project is a simple reward and physical activity you can do. Taking a walk around the office, or getting up to look out the window are all examples. Willing to get weird? When you really need that extra boost of an active break, go to a restroom where you can close and lock the door, and do pushups or air squats. Sure you will want to wash your hands, but it gets the blood pumping, and _may_ release dopamine which helps you to focus.
Why we NEED breaks
Attention is not a fixed ability, but more like a muscle that grows tired with use. *research we have the ability to focus for 30-40 min at a time, if it is listening to a lecture, or staying on one task at work, but as we approach the limit of attention, our mind starts to wander to other things. The trick is to not just reward your wandering mind, but to train it to use its full ability during that focus time, and give it the respite it needs when it needs it.
Build Will Power
If you find a break that works for you, and is really enjoyable use that to motivate through tough sessions. The more you are able to use this cycle of work and reward you build your will power muscle, and the ensuing self discipline along with it. This process of work + earned reward creates a positive feedback loop that works on a subconscious level. The more you stay on task and get things done, the more you train your brain to stay on task and get things done.
My favorite active break I gave its own chapter, as there are just too many benefits to list in this one place, but juggling is another solid active break. Juggling has the benefit of actively engaging both hemispheres, working your visual spatial skills along with fine motor control. will actually rewire your brain, and help you tap into and use those new connections. By combining left and right hemisphere activity, the motor cortex, and visual spatial acuity, this skill creates new connections in your brain. The fibrous band of tissue that connect the left and right hemispheres, called the corpus coliseum, is strengthened with more connections, and actually becomes thicker overall. Research still needs work on what happens when we increase these types of connections, but it is just one example of the neuroplacticity of our mind, and the ability we have to quite literally rewire our brain.
Looking for a REAL challenge? May I suggest taking up unicycling?! Yep, you should totally learn how to do it. It is one of the hardest ‘body puzzles’ out there. What is interesting about learning this unique skill, is it begins to highlight the way we learn any new skill. Because there are so many skills wrapped up in this one activity, the dependent nature of each individual skill, and how they must all work together in harmony becomes clearly evident. Balance, rotational force, and timing all work in concert to thwart your initial attempts, but with such a great challenge comes a great reward when you finally do master it.
Did I hear you say yes to unicycling? Excellent! Throw that bad boy in your car trunk, keep it with you so you can a unicycle break at work, while studying, or after a long lecture or boring talk. Feel like you are in a creative slump with writing? Go practice unicycling for 10 min and you will be taken completely out of your current predicament, and placed in learning unicycle world, where you can’t think about any other problems than the mono wheel present. Now when you come back to work/studying/boring lecture you have practically hit the reset button on your brain to be able to focus again on that given task.
What else works for active breaks? There are two approaches you should consider. Either intentional practice, or flow. Both active breaks of juggling and unicycling fall into the intentional practice realm. They are great if you have hit a block, or are stuck in a rut, but will use up some of your focus mental reserves. Another approach is to do something you are quite proficient at, one where you could do it nonstop for hours and feel like no time has passed at all. That state is called ‘Flow’, and spending time in a flow state is great for you, and you can read more about those benefits in this blog post about just that.
So work hard, take active breaks, learn some new skills, and get in the flow. Easy right?