On a good day, the creative thinking meter embedded in my chest will register between 6 and 9.7. More often than not, distractions knock that down to an average of 4.2. It may be, however, that my meter needs an adjustment. An article at 99u explains how Ap Dijksterhuis and a team from the Nijmegen Unconscious lab (best name ever) in The Netherlands discovered how distraction from a main task can actually help generate better ideas when returned to said task. They have a theory as to why it happens as well.

It’s all in the Switch

Typically, most people would think that small distractions (meetings, waiting on your computer, hiding from your boss, etc.) would interupt the creative flow. To an extent that is true and the reason depends on the distraction you’re switching to.

“The researchers gave over a hundred volunteers one of two main challenges. One was verbal in nature and involved spending five minutes coming up with as many new uses as possible for a brick (akin to brainstorming session in the office). The other was a spatial task, equivalent to a design-based project at work, and this involved arranging five simple shapes into recognizable objects – for example: a triangle, letter C and rectangle formed in such a way to resemble an ice cream cone.

After the time was up, the participants switched tasks for a five minute incubation. Half stayed on the same kind of mental activity – if they’d been brainstorming the brick uses, now they solved anagrams (both are verbal tasks); if they’d been arranging shapes now they completed a mental rotation exercise, judging whether one shape was the same as another but in a different position (both are spatial tasks). The other half of the participants switched mental activities – brainstormers now did mental rotation (switching from verbal to spatial); shape sorters now did anagrams (spatial to verbal).

Once the incubation period was over, the participants returned to their main challenge for an additional five minutes and the key test was whether they’d outperform a control group who’d just worked on either the brick task or the shape task for ten minutes straight through.

The take-home finding was that incubation breaks boosted creative performance, but only when the time was spent engaged in a different kind of mental activity.”

Have you found the same to be true? Like building muscle strength, it’s obvious that giving your brain a break from intense bouts of thinking will pump that oxygen through the tissue more efficiently on the next bout. The tricky part is finding a way to control those “incubation breaks”. Your office most likely isn’t the the controlled setting of a laboratory. What works for you?


Josh is founder and editor at SolidSmack.com, founder at Aimsift Inc., and co-founder of EvD Media. He is involved in engineering, design, visualization, the technology making it happen, and the content developed around it. He is a SolidWorks Certified Professional and excels at falling awkwardly.