You’re stuck on a creative task. Is it best to keep struggling with it, or to step away for a while and work on something else? Maybe taking a break will help you get the ideas you need. Or maybe you’re just procrastinating.
An article at 99u describes a study in which researchers found that subjects came up with more and better ideas after being distracted from their task with a completely different task.
The article says more about how they did this, but the gist of it is that while a control group worked on a particular task straight through, two experimental groups took a five-minute break in the middle during which they worked on something different. One group worked on a verbal task, and other on a spatial task.
Here’s what they found: When the original task was verbal in nature, the group that switched to a spatial task for a while ended up doing better than the control group. Switching from verbal to a different verbal task didn’t seem to help. Same thing with switching from spatial to spatial.
The study confirms what many creative people have long known intuitively. Sometimes you step away for a while and the idea you need is waiting for you when you come back. But the study also suggests that this only works when you’ve spent the intervening time using a different part of your mind.