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.

Also read on TechRepublic:

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...

17 comments
PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Occupational Therapists say that you should only work for 45 minutes at the computer and then take a 15 minute break. Their reasoning is related to the physical strain of sitting and staring. However, it applies to the mental strain as well. Glen Ford http://www.vproz.ca

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...that I have not been able to solve by taking a long walk.

reisen55
reisen55

Whenever I am stymied at a client site, or need to solve an intractable problem, go to the local diner (as road consultants we know where the good ones are) and sit down. Have a sandwich, coffee, read a paper. Anything to take the mind OFF of the hell it is working on and, very often, an IDEA will surface during the break time. I also have thought up solutions while sleeping. 2am can be a time when the mind suddenly works and solves a problem overnight and I wake up refreshed and EAGER to try out my idea. Even in corporate, when I was with Aon Group, we would take a coffee break. That alone probably saved my life when I was in the World Trade Center and we would also go down to the lobby where the food court was and have something to eat. So it was no big deal to go down there during the day and chow down, no big deal on September 11 either. See, it does work.

barrynovak5
barrynovak5

I agree walks are good not just because you hit a wall on a problem, but because it's been 2 or 3 hours since you got off your butt--for no other reason but to stay healthy. And I find that something wonderful happens when I do aerobic exercises: the answers start coming. Must be something about all that blood rushing around faster in my body--some of it flows into my brain.

dogknees
dogknees

My brother, who works as a general handyman, inventor, diesel fitter and various other thing for a large farmer also does this when he's working on something tricky. He has a chair set out at the back of his workshop, and when he has a problem, grabs a coffee, sits in the chair and cogitates. His boss now knows that if he's going to interrupt my brother, the worst possible time is not when he's waste deep inside some machine, but when he's on his thinking chair!

Slayer_
Slayer_

Though maybe I get stuck on easier things than you, but I find if I relearn what I did previously, I tend to look at it differently and that difference is what brings me to my solution.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The more you push it, the less progress you will make. You know I'm talking about the long-eared variety, yes? Otherwise, get your mind out of the gutter! :p

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

If it doesn't yield an answer, it usually at least provides some new avenues to explore.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That does seem to be when I wake up sometimes with an idea. Also, during my morning shower.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I don't know how many of the problems that took me multiple days to solve were because of false assumptions. So maybe a compromise: when you get back to your notes, walk through the process of verifying each bit again. That is, if you didn't get an amazing new insight while on the break.

apotheon
apotheon

Do you actually do any PHP work professoinally?

apotheon
apotheon

That sounds pretty familiar.

Editor's Picks