Lightbulb Moments: How Breaks Can Lead to Breakthroughs
Back in my Software Developer days, there were often issues or problems that the deeper I dived, the more complex it became. After a certain amount of effort, I would go on to something else. But the issue was always in the back of my mind. It was gnawing at my brain. The answer would come to me during the evening walk with the dog or in the shower. I remember being so excited to return to the office to try the solution.
Disclosure. I use Generative AI tools to help me when writing. From outline suggestions to topics or subtleties, I had yet to think of.
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We’ve All Been Stuck, and It’s Okay
This bolt of lightning inspiration happens less now that I am mostly busy with Project Management or Product Ownership tasks. But it’s comforting to know that when I encounter a ball-breaker of an issue, I will figure it out eventually, usually at the most unexpected moments.
Many examples exist, from modern-day business leaders to great past and present philosophers. Try entering this text into a search engine: “Anecdote or example of a great thinker finding inspiration on a walk”. See what I mean?
Here is a link to a Medium article from Som Dutt that describes how some of the truly greats find their inspiration whilst not working. I’ve added the relevant quote from the article.
How did Nietzsche write his books? He would walk for hours at a time and allow the ideas to come to him. This was his way of being inspired.
Nietzsche was far from alone. History is littered with inspiration dawning in the most unexpected situations. Probably one of the best known is the ‘Eureka!’ moment experienced by Archimedes. Most are aware of the word, even if they don’t know anything about Archimedes at all. Other historical walkers and thinkers are Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Ludwig van Beethoven.
The Nitty-Gritty: What Happens When You’re Not “Thinking”
The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a neuroscience term referring to the brain’s active regions when a person isn’t focused on anything specific. Letting the mind wander is, perhaps, how a layman like myself would best describe it. While not proven, it seems there is a link between creativity and the DMN.
Quite what this all means is a bit of a mystery to me, but from what I gather, meditation and other forms of relaxation have been shown to promote cognitive function. Which is a fancy way of saying the less you think about a problem, the more likely the solution will come to you.
We have all experienced the apparent dead-end of focused thinking. The more we think about some knotty problem, the further away the solution seems. Even worse, the issue feels like it has become even more complex and impossible to resolve. The best thing to do is to step away and do something entirely different for a time. Here, we find the region of diffuse thinking.
While our minds are seemingly fully occupied on another subject, parts of our mentality work on the issue we had previously temporarily abandoned. We don’t realise that this is going on constantly, and when the solution surfaces, we pat ourselves on the back for solving the insoluble. I suppose we did solve it, just not the conscious part of our brain.
Happy Feet: How the Simple Act of Walking Works Wonders
I’ve been advising young developers to get up and move, not to sit all day in front of their monitors. This is partly for the physical benefits or avoiding future issues with posture and repetitive strain injuries. However, it has been my experience that productivity and quality standards are maintained with regular breaks. Even just a short walk around the car park is restorative.
Spending too long working on any task may, eventually, result in a working function. But, the quality of the work may not be as good as the developer is capable of. Taking a break tends to reset your brain; breathing fresh air makes us feel better and more relaxed.
Movement boosts blood flow and cognitive function. So many studies correlate the connection between exercise and its positive effects on the brain. For example, an article on the Harvard Medical School website: Exercise can boost your memory and thinking skills.
You probably already know that exercising is necessary to preserve muscle strength, keep your heart strong, maintain a healthy body weight, and stave off chronic diseases such as diabetes. But exercise can also help boost your thinking skills. “There’s a lot of science behind this,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Meditation is another way to keep both the mind and body in trim. But meditation doesn’t only mean sitting in the lotus position and contemplating your navel. Any activity that pushes you to step back from the usual routine also counts as meditation. For me, doing the garden or tackling a pile of ironing does the trick. I always feel mentally refreshed and recharged after simple physical activities. Going for a walk has the same effect; the longer the walk, the more regenerative it will be. See, for example, an article by Dr Mia M (Montagu?). On LinkedIn, Step by Step: An Introduction to Mindful Walking Meditation.
Walk the Walk: Modern Takes on Walking for Creativity
Steve Jobs was famous or is that notorious, for his walking meetings. He preferred to do this while walking if he wanted or needed a serious conversation. He’d hold these meetings walking around the Apple Campus and the surrounding areas, often with senior Apple department heads. He implemented just a few smart rules to ensure maximum benefit from the walks:
- He kept the number of participants to a maximum of five people, preferably less. Any more than this, and the meeting rapidly loses any value.
- Similarly, the agenda points should be limited to three items. This helped to keep all participants fully engaged and focused on the discussion.
- Keep it short, no more than thirty minutes. Together with the limited agenda, it allows all involved to understand and retain key meeting points easily.
Of course, you can always have a meeting of one. Leaving your desk and clearing your head should be a daily habit. Whether you have a problem or not, taking a break will refresh your thought processes. It is far too tempting to keep diving deeper and deeper into your work. But the truth is that walking away for a time helps you keep your work focus in top condition.
Own Your Break: Be Your Life Coach
So, what can you do? What should you do? Apart from incorporating regular breaks into your daily routines, as already mentioned. Be prepared for the weather; just because it’s raining outside doesn’t mean you should ignore the need for a walk. Have an umbrella handy and a good jacket or coat. The last thing you want is to feel uncomfortable, wet, or cold. You’ll only lose any benefits that you usually get from your break.
Outside of work, physical exercise will have long-lasting effects on your mental well-being. Exercise doesn’t have to be going for a workout or hiking in nature (although they do help). Simply strolling around the neighbourhood is enough to reap the rewards of exercise.
Avoid bringing your work home with you; you need private time to recharge to perform to your best. If you must carry a phone, set it to “Do Not Disturb” or, even better, silent mode. Your private time must remain private; work email is for work only, so don’t check it outside the work environment. There can be exceptions, but typically, these should be arranged in good time and expected.
Lastly, I find taking a break from modern technology difficult to do myself. But it can be liberating to be disconnected for a while.
Final Thoughts: Who Doesn’t Love a Good Summary?
No matter your age, it’s vital to safeguard your physical and mental health, both your private life and your work life. In my experience, people in their twenties and early thirties tend to flirt with the myth that they are bulletproof and don’t have to worry about such mundane things.
Working hard to play hard is a common theme, although they mostly understand that we should always strive to work to live. Too many of my generation consistently got it wrong and lived to work. Why? Because it was the norm in those days, people were seen as lazy if they didn’t conform. I hope today that the younger generations have wised up and keep their priorities straight as they grow older.
As for taking regular breaks during the work day, try it yourself, especially if you work in a stressful environment (who doesn’t these days?); hopefully, you will quickly feel the benefits. That’s all from me this week, take care of yourselves and take those breaks, OK?
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I apologise to my readers for some of the spellings you may feel are incorrect. I was born and brought up in the United Kingdom, and this is the spelling I am comfortable with (Grammarly is happy with it anyway).