Take a break


13 September 2009


Occasionally, the best research is done in long periods of concentrated effort. Allegedly, Isaac Newton used to sometimes write for eight hours standing up without a break.

At other times, taking a break helps the research process. Think of Archimedes and his Eureka moment. Many of my best ideas come while walking, or taking a shower. In fact, I once suggested to my head of department that we should have showers installed in every office as it would increase the quality of our research.

Then there are the times when playing around with related ideas can lead to a new way of thinking about a problem. Sometimes I read a paper on a related topic, or do some numerical calculations in R, or browse through a book that might have something of interest. In this mode, I try not to think too deeply about the specific problem.

Most research tends to involve all three (and other) modes of working. There are times when you need to shut the door, block out distractions, and think hard. But after a while, if progress has stalled, it might help to go for a walk. If that doesn’t help, try playing around with some related ideas.

Recently, there has been some interesting research on the value of taking a break. In a recent article on “Cognitive Benefits of Nature Interaction” in Psychological Science, it is reported

Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed attention abilities a chance to replenish.

(Thanks to Andy Hunt for the pointer.) In other words, spending some time in a natural environment (in a park, on the beach, climbing mountains, etc.) will help our cognitive processing abilities. The periods of concentrated effort will be more effective if you also include periods of time enjoying the natural environment.

So go for a walk in the park without feeling you are wasting time. It is a valuable brain regeneration activity, and will help you do better research.