After Hours

Take a break for productivity's sake

Independent consultant Chip Camden explains why taking a walk outside is his ideal break when he's stuck on a problem. He also reveals potential pitfalls with this practice.

The human brain is a funny thing. At least, mine is. Even though its ability to heuristically follow hunches and intuitively leap to potential solutions still exceeds that of most (if not all) computers, sometimes it just gets stuck. I look at a problem from every angle I can think of, but no bells are ringing. That's when I know that it's time to leave this problem for a while. Continuing to slug away at it will likely lead nowhere. In fact, it may only muddle my understanding, because as I get more tired and frustrated I become less able to hold all the threads of what I know and don't know in my mind at the same time.

I could work on something else for a while, but I often find it better to just take a break. Give the rational part of my brain a rest, so the intuitive part can work on the problem without all that noise.

The first step, though, is to transfer all those threads I've been holding into notes. When I come back to the problem, I don't want to have to rediscover everything I've learned so far. So, I write down what I know, what I don't know, and what I suspect to be the case. Sometimes, just the act of doing this will reorganize my thoughts enough to give me a new idea. But if not, I proceed with the break.

Playing a computer game, while an entertaining diversion, is not a good fit for this purpose. It's too rational, and it keeps me sitting in front of a computer. Not only for my cognitive benefit, but also for my health, it's better to get out of that chair.

For me, taking a walk is the ideal break. Fresh air, sunshine (when it isn't raining), exercise, and change of scene all work to my advantage. When I first start out, I don't actively think about the problem I was working on — in fact, I try not to think about it. Focus on the experience of the walk. Notice things in the neighborhood. Talk to neighbors. Then I let my mind wander into any topic that occurs to me. I know that during all this, in some dark dungeon of my mind, my intuitive Inquisition has the problem on the rack, attempting to extract a confession of what is going on. I don't want to interrupt that with my fair-minded rationality just yet.

Eventually, usually about the time I start to feel the physical exertion, my mind will wander back to the problem at hand. I take it as a good sign when a thought occurs to me that begins with "What if..." or "Why don't I try...". In fact, the point of this exercise isn't to come to a final solution, but rather to generate ideas that will get me unstuck. I can pursue the ideas afterwards. For now, I'll feel successful if I have one or two good leads pop into my head. When I get back to my office, I'll take a drink of water and get started on them.

This practice has its potential pitfalls, though. Perhaps the most difficult is getting started again. If I let it, procrastination can kick in when I get back. Oh, I'll just read the email that has collected in my absence. After that, I might check to see if there are any critical updates that need applying. If at this point I start a game, abandon all hope. Why does this temptation arise? Perhaps it's fear that following my new leads won't help a bit. However, I must apply discipline and just start working on it, one thing at a time.

Another problem I've noticed is guilt. I don't bill my clients for the time I take on break, so it's easy to feel guilty about taking one because I'm not getting all of the billable hours that I could. I'm literally walking away from some money. I suppose I'd feel even guiltier if I did bill them for that time, though. To get over this, I remind myself that taking a break was the most productive thing I could do at that time. For whatever reason, my brain needed it.

Perhaps someday neurologists will devise a way to stimulate intuition on demand, and package it into a handy little device I can attach to my brain and dial up to "Awesome." In the meantime, I'll resort to the practice that has passed to us through the sieve of natural selection: I'll take a break.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

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