Take a Break (Infuriating Advice, Part 2)

Last night, a plot point that had been nagging me for days dropped into my head while I was dicing onions. Last week, a perfect turn of phrase for an essay sauntered through my head while I was on the train. I am grateful for these breakthrough moments, and also started to wonder, why couldn’t I think of these while at my desk?

Why is it that I am least creative when I am working hardest?

In my last post, I my advice was: If you want to write, write (more).

Today, my advice is: take a break!

And yes. That advice is contradictory. Here is why.

There is an emerging interest in the science of creativity, and researchers recently tackled the question: why do people get their best ideas in the showers? The answer is straightforward.

You have better ideas when you are relaxed.

image of a busy brain

A busy brain can be a writer’s enemy

Decision-making, e-mail-writing, and schedule-juggling is controlled by the prefrontal cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex controls association and emotional response. Some studies suggest that when artists are improvising and most creative, there is almost no activity in the prefrontal cortex. The part of your brain that balances your checkbook does not write poetry. Not only does creativity need a quite prefrontal cortex, it also thrives on dopamine. What’s dopamine? The neurotransmitter that relaxes the body.

In other words, your writer’s block is not because you are not focused, but because you are not relaxed.

Image of a brain at rest

When your frontal cortex is resting, your subconscious is at work.

Thinking about a problem can keep you from creating a solution. Dopamine quiets the chatter, and lets your subconscious get to work. When I was dicing onions, I was relaxed, which let my subconscious knit together the ideas that been slowly forming.

So how do you access this magic drug? Take a break. Bake a cake. Take a bath. Walk around the block. Draw a picture of your brain.

It can be hard to follow this advice. After all, my writing time is precious to me, often squeezed between other jobs, or carved out at the end of the day. When I find myself staring at the screen, faced with a plot problem I can not untie, I remind myself that creativity does not have a time-clock.

I find that by writing more frequently and taking breaks when I get frustrated, I am able to make daily progress.

Do you ever feel like your best – or only – ideas happen when you’re away from your desk?


Naomi is a writer, performer, and project manager.  She has dueling degrees in business and playwriting. You can learn more about her work here.


24 thoughts on “Take a Break (Infuriating Advice, Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Reblog…3 of my favourite words…”Take a Break!” – Create Space

  2. I totally agree with this.
    I used to be really into puzzles after a long shift. I was usually exhausted and doing a puzzle when I got home helped me to relax while not falling asleep so that I could go to sleep later on in the evening. However, I would get stuck and not be able to find any pieces, and get frustrated. I found that when I walked away for a few hours, suddenly the pieces jumped out at me. Same with doing Soduku (I’m sure I butchered that spelling).
    So I decided to give it a go with writing and anything school related. It absolutely works. If I switch gears and focus on something else for a while, usually what I’m trying to figure out or work on initially comes to me.

  3. Pingback: Take a Break (Infuriating Advice, Part 2) – Website Blog

  4. Yes, this is so true! I have my best ideas when I’m about to fall asleep. Then I wake myself up to write them down. And thus why I don’t sleep. I’ve seen tons of research on the brain and creativity explaining what you say here. It’s very interesting how our brains work and how little we really understand the thing that makes us function.

  5. That prefrontal cortex trips me up every time.

    Actually, the past few months the ideas DO come most while I’m writing–but that’s because I finally committed to writing an hour before work, and to get out of the bathroom dance with the roomies I took it to the coffee shop.

    And it’s the coffee shop, not the hour, that finally nailed it. I bought the house a couple years back in order to create a writer’s retreat–the awesome back yard, the dining room table overlooking the awesome back yard… Hah! Such a crock. The soul-sucking house with its constant maintenance demands and guilt-inducing dusty corners–all completely forgotten in the coffee shop. So I’m relaxed at last where I have only ONE job to do, drink good coffee and write.

    • Yes! I often catch myself thinking, “well if I had a studio I would be able to write so much better.” I’ve never been a great coffee shop writer, but I do love writing in the library. I like the accountability to other people, and not having the temptation of excuses like folding laundry, making dinner, etc.

  6. Pingback: take it easy.. | nobsters

  7. Brilliant advice and certainly so true in my life.; It has always been in most unexpected times when writing is the last thing on my mind that thoughts, inspirations , and ideas flow most clearly. Hence my habit of leaving notebooks, paper and pens etc in places unexpected ie cupboard in laundry, Toilet cupboard. I have been known to write notes on the back of shopping dockets. Once in desperation even wrote a few inspired jottings on my arm. My life is perhaps different to others but if I ever sat down to WRITE…….NOTHING….unless I had the thoughts, ideas etc already written on something. Love this writers blog. Constantly encouraging and inspiring. Thank you.

  8. Hi Naomi, I love your diagrams of the brain in the two different modes. I couldn’t agree with you more. Ialways loved reading stuff that was ‘off the course’ for this very reason and the brain is so much more receptive when you are reading bits of the newspaper when you are supposed to be writing a work report.

    Here’s a tip that worked for me, paradoxical as it may sound. Get a back injury! I had a bad disk problem a few years ago and sitting at the desk was not advised, at least sitting for longer than 50 minutes at a time. Now I always avoid prolonged bouts of sitting and do a lot of thinking while standing or walking. Since the injury when I am working at the computer I get up from the desk every 40 or 50 minutes and take a stroll, around the building, into the back garden, into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. At these moments I often have great ideas and make good connections. I managed to write a whole book in this way, just working at the desk for one to four hours each morning, with lots of little break.s

    Maybe there is something about the brain and kinaesthetic intelligence -as I walk in the woods I sort out a lot of thoughts in my head, and I often do my best problem solving while walking in green spaces.

    Many poets, like Wordsworth and Yeats, composed while walking.

    The TimeOut app is great – you can install it for free.

    • I’m hoping I don’t get a back injury – but I do love the recommendation to not sit for so long. On days when I work exclusively from home, I start the day with a commute (walk). Thank you for the reminder that books are written one hour at a time!

  9. I agree completely with the value of breaking away instead of pounding your forehead on that concrete wall.
    However, in our busy, multitasked, overcommitted lives, it can be hard to just take a break. I have a mental image of a novelist who has the time and money to go out to the spa for a hot rock massage with every block, but that isn’t my situation.
    I’ve been successful just getting lost in another task unrelated to the issue that has me blocked. I’ve resolved plot and character problems in my fiction writing while working on my day job, writing and reviewing complex, statistical technical reports. I even settled one issue just by going back and copyediting the sections of the piece that hadn’t been reviewed after the first writing.

    • I love this! I just read a book called “The Artist At the Office” (Summer Pierre) and a lot of it is about how to make art with the time you have. I remind myself that William Carlos William wrote his poems on prescription pads, and that countless other artists have worked other jobs.

  10. Pingback: Take a Break (Infuriating Advice by Naomi Shafer, Part 2) – Coffee talks

  11. Taking a moment to breathe is really useful during writing. This blog is riddled with great tips, and I’ve been trying to rally some support for mine. Thanks in advance if you do decide to check it out.

  12. You are stating falsehoods. The medial prefrontal is a part of the DMN (default-mode network), which is has heavy implication in divergent and spontaneous thinking. This is the opposite of what you state.
    Further, “parts” do not “switch” off. There is also EN (Executive Network) involvement in creative thinking. The EN is used for goals and evaluation. Like most processes in the brain, multiple parts are involved in most of the tasks we do.
    Your diagrams are similarly misleading (what happens on the left does not happen on the right, as we look at a person’s face). The brain in 3D, not 2D, and its specializations are hemispherical. For example, speech is not a “left-brain” function; the right can do it, albeit not as efficiently. The left side is so heavily implicated because it responds and processes that task faster, to say it loosely.
    But enough of this thing so dry as brain parts. The reason to remove yourself is a forest-and-trees problem. Focusing too hard on something (micro) uses too much working-set so that the brain has no chance to make its leaps. Before science discussed these things at all, Edison used to nap in his chair, a coin between his fingers. If he dozed off the coin dropped, waking him. He claimed many of his breakthroughs occurred following the coin-drop.

  13. Great article! 🙂 May I reblog it on Behind the Tinted Glass? My best ideas always happen when I’m away from my desk, usually a minute or two before I will fall asleep. Some ideas happen also when I’m at my desk, but only if I create good working conditions, like listening to relaxing music, moving away the distractions, etc.

  14. This, this, this : In other words, your writer’s block is not because you are not focused, but because you are not relaxed.

    (now thinks of a way to make notes whilst led on a massage table)

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