Take a Break

5 minute read

Debugging involves minutes or even hours of trial and error – and we tend to focus on the error part and get frustrated. Presented with error after error and falsified hypothesis after falsified hypothesis, we’re inclined to double down and frantically make and test more hypotheses, feeling that we’re just about to crack it. But the most effective thing we can do when we’ve been working on a tough problem for too long is to stop working on the problem for a little while. While some of my most dramatic encounters with this effect have occurred while debugging, getting stuck in a rut, taking a break, and suddenly hitting on the solution either during the break or immediately after returning is a routine human experience that’s common to every remotely creative discipline, and everything in this post applies to all of these disciplines.

My coworker Alex used to visit our office gym religiously anytime he had been stuck for more than an hour or so. Almost without fail, he came back with new theories – and seemingly more often than not, they were right! But Alex’s success isn’t just coincidence or a trick peculiar to him. Here’s why his method was successful and how we can apply it ourselves.

Making Space

Taking a break does not mean that we just go do anything we want whenever we get frustrated; exactly how we take our break and what we do during it matters a great deal. Specifically, reaping the benefits of taking a break requires not working. Switching to another difficult problem, or even an easy problem, will just cause more frustration – plus incur the cognitive overhead of switching tasks while we’re already tired. Instead, we need to do things that provide space.

Debussy is said to have proclaimed that “music is the space between the notes.” In a similar vein, I find that creativity is the space between work, and there’s a great deal of research to back me up (here’s a brief summary). Once we’ve been hacking away at a problem for an hour or two, we tend to run around in circles exploring things that we’ve already proven not to work through the scientific method. In his enlightening book Debugging by Thinking, Robert Metzger explains that research has found people focus on “aspects of a problem that are emotionally or psychologically interesting, rather than those that are logically important.” The parts that are psychologically interesting might be based on the problem at first, but later on they can be based on nothing more than what we’ve previously found interesting. We need two things to escape this vicious cycle: first, a cessation of reinforcement of the ideas we’re stuck with, and second, fresh ideas that might serendipitously combine with the work we’ve already done to produce the solution or a fresh approach at the solution. Space is the source of these things.

How do we get space? Going for a walk is one of the most effective methods. A leisurely walk combines several useful properties:

  • We have to leave our workspace (being in that workspace helps keep us thinking the same thoughts, for the same reason that walking back into the living room can help us remember why we went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator).
  • We are exposed to somewhat novel sights and events (especially if we can go outside).
  • We stop sitting and start getting some physical activity without it becoming difficult enough to tax our concentration.
  • Despite all of this, our minds are free to wander.

Many of the world’s greatest minds throughout history, from authors to composers to scientists, are known for taking long and frequent walks, and recent studies have added to the evidence for their effectiveness.

If you don’t like walking or you need a change, though, you certainly have other options: anything that gets you away from your work and requires little enough thought that your mind can wander works as a space-making activity. I also like washing dishes, cleaning, and even commuting. The shower is a common enough place for sudden inspiration that we even have expressions for the experience.

Filling the Space

What do we think about in the space we make? Well, the title of this section is a bit of a misnomer; if we fill up the space, it’s not space anymore! We need to give ourselves time to relax and not work on or worry about any difficult problems for a while. Breathing, enjoying the space around us, and thinking about something entirely different and out of our unproductive context comprise the necessary first step.

Eventually, though, it’s fine and even helpful to return to the problem. It’s also fine and helpful to absently move back and forth between the problem and what we’re doing this weekend; maybe one of the breaks from the problem will provide some useful insight when juxtaposed with it! But keep in mind that our break-thoughts should not be organized logically or intentionally; we’re trying to create open space for ideas and solutions to come to us, not make them come through conscious effort. After all, we embarked on our break activity because conscious effort wasn’t working for us.

The space might give us brilliant ideas. But if it doesn’t, it’s not time to fret yet: returning to work after a break often leads to insights as well. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been fighting some problem in my code, taken a short break, and come back to find the (now obvious) bug within the next two minutes. The break helps to bring on a fresh perspective – just like talking to a duck or asking someone who hasn’t been working on the problem to take a look.

The effects of deliberate breaks on creativity are just another reason why we should consider working less. Next time you’re beating your head against the wall at the office, consider stopping that and going outside to enjoy the weather instead.