The Value of Taking a Productive Pause

Really? We do this now and then…(and lookit how well it works for TVWriter™ – oh, wait–)


by Art Markman

Stories about creative insight often involve some kind of “productive pause,” or what psychologists call an incubation period. Archimedes, who was given the task of measuring the volume of an oddly-shaped golden crown, had his flash when stepping into a bath. Kekule was said to have thought of the structure of benzene while riding on a horse-drawn on a bus.

And chances are, you have had some issue plague you that has resolved itself while you were away from the problem taking a walk, sitting in a bath, or lying on a couch.

There are several reasons why this time away from the problem is helpful, but let me start out with a brief description of what is not happening.

Many people have a strange model of what our unconscious mind does. We assume that there is some army of smart thinkers that are working hard on our behalf while we are occupied with other pursuits. Eventually, one of those thinkers comes up with a great idea and sends it up to our conscious awareness and we have a flash of insight.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. Incubation helps, but not because we have our own army working for us to solve problems. Instead, there are several other reasons productive pauses are valuable.

Resetting the mind. Your memory is competitive. When you start thinking about a problem, certain ideas jump to the forefront. They leap to mind both because they are related to the description of the problem, and because they successfully tamp down (or inhibit) competing memories. Once memory has been inhibited, it has a hard time reaching your awareness, even if the information from that memory might be crucial for solving a problem.

Incubation helps, but not because we have our own army working for us to solve problems.

When you walk away from a problem and think about something else, your memory resets. The ideas that dominated your thinking recede from your thoughts. The memories that were inhibited before gradually become more accessible. If your thoughts return to the problem after a pause, those other memories now have a chance to influence your thinking.

Changing the description. Think about vegetables, and your memory will be filled with situations in which you encountered vegetables. Think about birthday parties, and memories about birthday parties spring to mind. The way you describe a problem you are solving influences what you are thinking about.

Often, when you start solving a problem, the description you begin with is fairly specific. You frame the problem in terms of the domain in which the problem is set. If you are trying to build a better vacuum cleaner, you think about bags, suction, and dirt.

When you take some time away from the problem, some of those details fade away, and the description of the problem gradually changes and becomes more abstract. You may shift from thinking about suction and bags to separating dirt from air. As those details change, the memories you pull up change as well. That leads to new insights.

The way you describe a problem you are solving influences what you are thinking about.

The role of serendipity. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you can’t come up with a good way to think about the problem. You are just stuck. In those times, the productive pause brings you into contact with lots of things in the world. And one of those chance encounters can lead to insight.

There is a lot of research on opportunistic planning demonstrating that when you have a goal you need to satisfy, you notice things in your environment that will help you to solve the problem. When you need to mail a letter, it increases the chances you will notice a mailbox that you pass on the street.

Similarly, when you are stuck with a problem that needs a creative solution, it will increase the odds that you will notice something in your world that can lead to a problem-solving insight. Archimedes had likely stepped into a bath hundreds of times, but only when he was puzzled about measuring volume did the rise in water level capture his attention.

So, the next time you are stuck on a problem, take a break. Even though there isn’t an army of problem solvers working behind the scenes, you still may find value in that pause.

Like we said at the top, we use this method – a lot.

But – and we blame our parents and teachers and all those other societal sumbitches for it – no matter how hard we try to sugarcoat our action, we still think of it as wussing out.