Mental blocks and creative ruts are the WORST, and sadly inevitable. There are countless apps that promise to help you get your productivity back on track, but nondigital activities can work just as well for giving your brain a break and restoring your mental acuity. As a fierce quartet of philosophers once said: “Free your mind and the rest will follow”.
Beethoven, Goethe, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg: All avid walkers. In 2014, a study from Stanford University found that people were 60% more creative while walking, and almost 81% more creative after walking — whether walking outdoors or, surprisingly, even on a treadmill.
Walking may not be a cure-all for focused concentration, but a short, aimless wander can imbue you with fresh perspectives and free up your mind to find links between disparate patterns and ideas. And if you’re not a fan of going solo, try turning your next meeting into a walking one.
Bonus Track: Listen to a segment on walking and creativity from the Slack Variety Pack podcast.
2. Work with Your Hands
In Steal Like an Artist, writer and artist Austin Kleon notes that he has two desks in his workspace: One digital, one analog. The analog desk is where he puts pen to paper to draw or draft ideas, at the digital desk he refines and edits. He’s not alone, in the canon of great writers before him, both Susan Sontag and Truman Capote followed almost this exact process (just sub a computer for a typewriter).
Regularly switching between digital and nondigital forms play into different cognitive processes. Working with your hands can be a meditative activity, allowing you to destress and often helping you achieve what popular psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihaly describes as “flow” — a state of intense concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand. All of which explains the sudden popularity of adult coloring books, a phenomenon this writer is particularly grateful for.
3. Try a Tomato Timer
Leave it to an Italian to find yet another brilliant use for a tomato, or a tomato timer, rather. Francesco Cirillo invented the Pomodoro Technique — a time management trick that suggests working in 25 minute bursts with short breaks in between.
The name is inspired by an actual tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo owned. You can use this method to focus on a single task or break up a larger task into 25 minute increments. The gentle ticking adds a little pressure to help you avoid procrastination and get the job done. It might sound maddening, but according to a study by the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Social Psychology, intelligent and well-designed constraints don’t just improve focus, they actually help you think more creatively and see the bigger picture.
Bonus Track: Listen to a Pomodoro experiment in action on the Slack Variety Pack podcast.
And of course, there are bots for Slack that can help with the Pomodoro technique too.
4. Leave Your Idea Hanging
Here’s something no one’s told you: That motivational cat poster lied. While it can be tempting to “hang in there” and force yourself to plug away on a project until it’s done (a tendency known as the Ziegarnik Effect), your determination may be burning you out especially if you’re stuck or uninspired.
Hop out of the mental hamster wheel and find another project to work on or, better yet, find a space to breathe or meditate and let your mind go quiet. According to American neuroscientist and writer David Eagleman, the solution may be in your subconscious: “Implicit memory systems (subconscious) are fundamentally separate from explicit memory systems (conscious): even when the second one has lost the data the former one has a lock on it.” (Eagleman, 2011, p. 64)
5. Take Care of Yourself!
Arianna Huffington’s best-selling book Thrive opens with a story about the time she fainted from exhaustion and wound up with a broken cheekbone and a gash over her eye — an alarming warning bell for Generation Overworked. Amidst juggling projects and priorities, remember that unlike time, your energy is not infinite.
The first step: Know thyself, and to thine own optimal work habits be true. Whether that means requesting a flexible start time, setting up a standing desk to keep your blood circulating (and ideas flowing), or finding a space for a few moments of solitude (a proven method for managing stress levels, especially in the era of the open office).
Purple unitards optional, though very much encouraged.
Bonus Track: Listen to the case for flexible start times from the Slack Variety Pack podcast.
Lima Al-Azzeh is a writer who still doesn’t know how to ride a bike.