How Breaks Can Turn into Breakthroughs

UPDATED: September 7, 2014
PUBLISHED: September 7, 2014

Just in case any children read this column—peeking, as kids inevitably will, at Mom’s or Dad’s seductive copy of SUCCESS—allow me to start with a disclaimer: I in no way endorse playing hooky. It’s a terrible, awful, dangerous idea.

Unless you’re a grown-up.

My own addiction to hooky began 17 years ago. On deadline with my first book, I was stuck at Chapter 5. How the heck should I structure the tale of hiking through Colorado ruins with my mother? Where should I describe the ancient pottery shards? The pathetic clay pots we made ourselves? Nothing worked. I vowed to sit at my computer all weekend, all week, however long it took. Naturally, this is when friends from California turned up on the East Coast, and I spent an unplanned day wandering through New York City, not thinking once about Chapter 5.

That very evening, a miracle arrived: the perfect structure, as fully formed in my head as pottery shards glued into an actual vase. I scribbled and scribbled notes on a legal pad, my hand barely able to keep up with my brain.

Since then I’ve often found that a few minutes or hours of hooky—smack in the middle of a workday—are just what I need to solve the seemingly unsolvable. This is truer than ever now that I’m largely self-employed, because self-employment, as any entrepreneur knows, can easily morph into mind-dulling self-flagellation. (I should be working every free minute, every day, all year!)

Why do breaks lead to breakthroughs? “We have no idea,” says John Medina, Ph.D., author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Well, make that no established, peer-reviewed idea. “A lot of people think, when you take a break from a problem, your brain goes offline and starts processing it outside of conscious awareness; this is a hypothesis.”

One believer in that hypothesis is Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., author of Conquer CyberOverload. “In order to get to a creative solution we have to first, of course, focus very hard on what we’re trying to do,” she says. “But then we have to allow our brain to get out of that tunnel vision.” We have to let it churn subconsciously through knowledge we may not realize is related to the problem at hand, she says, and make fresh connections.

Whether or not such “waking offline processing” is real—and Medina admits that if you put a gun to his head, he’d say it probably is real—it’s clear that playing hooky can spark insight. To function at its peak, after all, your brain needs rest and refueling just as your body does. “After a break you can actually come at a problem with considerably more energy,” Medina says.

Not all forms of hooky are created equal, though. One of the very best, Medina and Cantor agree, is napping. Science has shown persuasively that offline processing happens when we sleep—and that sleeping on a problem helps us solve it. “It’s very important to take a nap sometime during the midafternoon,” Medina says. “If you don’t, your brain will fight you.” About 30 minutes of shut-eye should do the trick. If it were up to Medina, the “office of the future” would have a recliner in every cubicle: “You can just lean back in your La-Z-Boy, put your feet up and take a nap.”

No La-Z-Boys in your office? Then consider a little brisk but not exhausting exercise. Among other things, Medina notes, it brings oxygen to the brain and improves focus. He swears by 15-minute walks outdoors, and uses a treadmill desk, to boot. Which brings him back to that office of the future: “The most effective workplace in the world would be one that allowed you to do a series of walks all day long, punctuated with events at your cubicle instead of the other way around.”

Other types of hooky work, too, of course (witness my Chapter 5 miracle)—but some are best avoided. For me, as for Cantor and Medina, hooky is largely media-free: no checking email, no reading complex books, all of which can be mentally taxing. And it’s never sneaky. Years ago in California, I called in fake-sick one morning and felt so guilty and afraid of running into co-workers that even a stroll by the ocean—complete with leaping dolphins!—was a big, unrefreshing waste. These days, as needed, I warn editors or colleagues that I’ll be out of pocket.

Take the other afternoon.

On a Tuesday, my husband and I left our offices to walk along the Erie Canal—with ice cream cones for an extra cognitive boost. (I’m sure science will catch up with me on this.) Our brains already racing with ideas for the work we’d be soon be resuming, we spotted graffiti on a stone wall: “It is hard to be inspired.”

Clearly, that graffiti artist needs to play more hooky.

So walks can be good for your brain and focus—and, get this, they are also beneficial to your relationships. Find out 8 reasons why.