When we are trying to figure something out – an essay, a problem set, a puzzle – it can feel like we need whatever we don’t have. When a parent or roommate keeps interrupting your train of thought with casual comments about dinner or their day, you dream of a quiet place to focus. When you enter your second hour staring at the same math problem or mostly blank first page of an essay, you dream about taking a break. It turns out that, for creative tasks, both have their place. But figuring out when to use each means recognizing that not all breaks (or interruptions) are created equal.
Researchers studying problem solving break the process down into main elements. One model includes preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. That first step, preparation, is the work it takes to get mentally into the problem or task at hand. It lets you understand the bounds, get to know your tools, look into the details, and form an understanding of the task ahead of you. If you have the right approach, the solution comes then. If not, you take that important foundation and step back for incubation – time away from the problem. Incubation provides an opportunity for new cognitive approaches to result in illumination about the solution. That solution can then be verified. Simple enough in concept, but all of us know what it is like to get stuck along the way.
Just like the illumination can happen at different times, the mental blocks keeping illumination from coming can come from different sources. One source can be how you are approaching the problem. When you first try to solve something, you have a particular approach or framework. If that framework does not provide a solution, remaining in that framework (even subconsciously) can be referred to as a cognitive state of fixation. Incubation has been found to be useful when a cognitive state of fixation occurs. Another side is the experience of feeling stuck – reaching a psychological state of impasse. This isn’t just about not reaching a solution, it is about the frustration of not reaching a solution reaching the point of wanting to give up. When illumination comes as we work, it feels like a result of our efforts. When it comes in the shower or on the ride home, it feels random. But taking a break at the right time can help the process and keep that psychological impasse at bay.
One team of researchers hoping to compare interruptions and breaks asked participants to complete a series of crossword puzzles. As a task, crossword puzzle solutions tend to be intuitive rather than the result of involved logic. Each of the groups was given three puzzles to complete in 18 minutes. One group was given one puzzle at a time and had to spend a full six minutes on one before moving to the next. Another group had to cycle between puzzles A, B, and C in predetermined intervals of three minutes. The third group was able to use the 18 minutes however they wanted, swapping between puzzles at their own discretion. The timing of the correct answers supported the crossword as intuitive tasks: of the 85 puzzles solved, 63 were solved in the first 3 minutes – 44 of those in the first minute. Additional answers tended to come just after switching back from a different puzzle rather than staying on the same puzzle for longer.
The researchers were measuring not only performance in the form of correct puzzle answers, but also monitoring whether participants reported an impasse – did they reach a point of wanting to give up? Participants who were able to switch between puzzles at their own discretion ultimately provided the most correct answers, and they also reported the fewest impasses. Participants who were not able to switch puzzles and had to remain on a single task for the full six minutes provided fewer correct answers and more instances of impasse. Participants who were interrupted – had to shift between puzzles at the predetermined times – did not provide significantly more correct answers than those working for the full six minutes, but they did report fewer impasses. The interruptions may have been outside of their control, but the people who experienced those interruptions were less likely to feel like giving up. The interruptions did something to keep the frustration from reaching a level of abandonment.
Even without this kind of research, people tend to acknowledge that taking breaks is important. Research in video games points to diminished performance with continued play – even in the best players. But not all breaks are created equal. The earlier experiment suggests that breaks you choose to take are more beneficial than interruptions outside of your control, but additional research found that even the breaks you choose to take have varied impact. In a review of previous work, researchers found that breaks that physically or mentally separate you from a task have some of the strongest benefits for mood, energy, and performance. Breaks with others also have a positive effect. But at the other end of the spectrum, breaks with others in which you reflect on the negative aspects of the task you are taking the break from does not show the same improvements in mood, energy, or performance. Talking about the nature of the work was one thing, but complaining about the work does not provide much relief. As expected, working through breaks decreases well-being and mood.
While there is no clear formula for coming up with solutions to difficult problems, evidence certainly suggests that taking a break to think about something else should hardly be seen as a failure. Whether breaks improve your mood enough to get back into the problem or provides the new perspective you needed, embracing the value of an incubation period may move from stuck to solution. And once you decide to take a break, do something that pulls your mind away from both the problem and any negative feelings that may be dominating your thoughts. One final note for the procrastinators out there, incubation can only come after you have taken the time to prepare – and only if there is enough time before the deadline to step away.