Accomplishing more by doing less sounds too good to be true, right? Conventional wisdom has taught us that to achieve a goal, we need to *focus*. To-do lists, timers, apps, self-help books—all of them promise that if you could just focus harder or get up earlier, you’d get everything done. But recent studies show that too much focus and constant work can be counterproductive.
If you focus all the time, you’re not giving your brain a chance to put all the pieces together, says Dr. Srini Pillay, author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try. That’s where “unfocused” time becomes so valuable.
So how do you “slack off strategically” and set yourself up for some deliberate mind-wandering? Here are some suggestions.
How to solve a problem when you’re stuck
Recent research shows that brain breaks, daydreaming, and “unfocusing” actually help our creativity and problem-solving skills.
- Add brain breaks to your schedule
- Take a nap
- Go for a walk
- Diversify your activities
- Change your location
1. Add brain breaks to your schedule
You may have heard of the Pomodoro Technique, where you break up your tasks into 25 minute intervals, with short breaks in between. Well, consider tweaking this by adding longer 15-20 minute breaks to your schedule, where you can do something mindless.
“By taking that fifteen-minute period for mindlessness or daydreaming, your attention has been broadened and your mind is now able to make more creative connections between ideas. This cannot happen when you stay overly focused on a problem,” Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director of the Imagination Institute, told the Washington Post.
Do laundry, take a shower, pull weeds. Just don’t use your break to scroll through your phone or to switch to a different focused task. And, especially if you’re in crisis mode or dealing with new business challenges, taking these brain breaks can unlock the problem-solving potential you need to make it to the other side.
2. Doodle while you’re listening
In one study, research participants had to listen to a very boring, long voicemail message (we’ve all been there, right?) Half of the people were asked to doodle while they listened, and the other half just sat there. The doodling group performed much better on tests that rated their comprehension and memory of the message.
How does this work? We aren’t 100% sure, but scientists suspect that doodling (like fidgeting) is your brain’s last-ditch effort to stay at least slightly attentive to what’s going on, without zoning out entirely.
3. Take a nap
There’s a reason some offices have installed nap pods. Even a very brief nap 5-15 minutes can improve cognitive function for 1-3 hours afterwards. Naps over 30 minutes have an even longer cognitive benefit, though you’ll likely have to deal with a foggy head (“sleep inertia”) for a few minutes after waking up.
4. Go for a walk
Walking, in particular, has been shown to boost people’s creativity during the walk and right after. The benefit was even more pronounced when walkers strolled outside, rather than inside on a treadmill.
Don’t fancy taking a stroll during sidewalk rush hour? Find a quiet spot and do some light stretching instead. Just taking yourself away from your desk and incorporating physical movement can have a big impact on your stress and concentration levels.
5. Do different kinds of activities
In his book, Dr. Pillay emphasizes the importance of “dabbling,” trying a new activity that’s outside your normal routine. The trick is to try something new without expecting to be any good at itl. You have to be willing to experiment and make mistakes without putting any pressure on yourself.
“Dabbling in a new adventure,” Pillay writes, “whether a hobby or fantasy, disrupts your habitual and reactive thinking, helping you find new solutions to old problems.”
This also explains the thinking behind InnoCentive, a crowdsourced problem-solving site that encourages people to try to solve challenges submitted by different organizations. They have found that people were more likely to solve a challenge if they were not an expert in the field. These successful solvers were “unstuck” from traditional thinking and limitations and could come at the problem from a different way.
6. Take a vacation, even if you don’t go anywhere
Ever felt like you just need to get away from your desk? Or found yourself staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page? Changing location can provide a huge boost to your creativity, and even very small changes can make a difference.
“New ideas arise from an interconnection of old ideas. So that means, at the very least, you have to be exposed to a novel stimulus,” says Robert Epstein at the American Institute for Behavioral Research. Changing your setting or just staring out the window at a different landscape “gets you thinking thoughts and combinations that you’ve never experienced before…That’s where new ideas come from.”
Of course, changing your location isn’t easy right now. I’ve been enjoying Window Swap, a website that shows you 10 minute videos of people’s window views from around the world. If you’re bored staring out your own window, you can spend some time looking out a window in Bangalore, Tokyo, or Amsterdam.
The power of “unfocus”
We’ve all found ourselves stuck in a rut, struggling to get things done, or hitting our heads against the same problem over and over again. If this happens to you, just remember that the best thing might be to do…nothing. Just let your brain hum along in the background for a while. You might be surprised to find that you’re suddenly unstuck.