Science shows that leisure is essential to the creative process and for spurring success. Sign me up!
By Tori Rubloff, University of Florida
Work and leisure: Two modes of functioning that, regrettably, seem to quarrel with each other more than they coalesce.
As a student, you might completely burn yourself out by cramming and multitasking all day, and only when you’re done might you reward yourself with some time to kick back with a book, go on a long walk while listening to music or sink into a Netflix binge. However, it’s not long before an urgent text or e-mail shifts you back into work mode.
In this work-leisure tussle, work pretty much always prevails, as it constantly threatens consequence and begs to be prioritized. Leisure succumbs to a second-rank position and becomes a luxury—one that most people don’t assign enough import to, and hence, enough time to. Ironically, according to psychological studies and expert testimonies, you need leisure time in order to do good work; it is the medicine that promises thoughtful, innovative and deeply original results.
The Elixir of Epic Ideas
Have you noticed that some of your best ideas flood over you in a sort of “Eureka!” moment while you’re taking a blissful, hot shower? Or maybe after taking a break for a mind-clearing walk? Or even while laying down for a power nap? You’re not alone, and you’re luckily in the same boat as some of the most successful chaps around; Woody Allen is known to take multiple showers a day to get out of a creative rut, and Steve Jobs took long strolls to stumble upon some of his most ingenious ideas.
What’s an explanation for this phenomenon? Insight (when an answer suddenly comes to your mind without an apparent source) and analysis (using a strategy to deliberately think about something) are different processes in the brain that everyone uses at different times. Not only does insight act as an excellent personal creative side-kick, but, for the skeptics out there, it’s even been proven to be pretty trustworthy. A study published in the journal of “Thinking and Reasoning” found that when thirty-eight participants were given a brain-teaser task, those who used insight to arrive at a solution had accuracy 94 percent of the time in comparison with 78 percent accuracy for those who used analysis.
So, how do you hack into insight? Sparks of inspiration, unplanned kernels of creativity and answers to complex problems are always simmering in your subconscious, but while you work using conscious analysis, there’s often too much noise to unlock them. When it’s just quiet enough, when you’re in a zone of enjoyment and relaxation, when you can actually turn your analytical brain off for a second and let your mind wander, insight can finally use its muscles to lift the ideas up to your awareness.
Gail Evans, former executive vice president of CNN and best-selling author of “Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman,” owes much of her success to understanding this principle. “If you think about one thing for too long, you’re more apt to get stuck. You need to recharge so you can look at things. You need to step outside yourself and look at what’s possible,” she advises. “When you can get away from work through leisure time, and step back and let yourself breathe a little, you can see more creative answers and better solutions.”
Those Darn Distractions
The biggest impediment to achieving true leisure are distractions and alerts, usually due to technology. With your phone and laptop within reach as you attempt to descend into leisure, you won’t quite get there.
A study done by psychologists at Florida State University and published in the “Journal of Experimental Psychology” found that even when you try to ignore the buzz of your phone, it has already distracted you. Just expending the willpower to not pick up your phone interferes with the process of refreshing your mind.
When technology is such a central part of our lives that we don’t want to completely ignore, it seems that attaining pure leisure is unlikely. However, Evans points out an excellent perspective to take. “People who let technology bleed all over their lives are much less able to find leisure and be completely creative and relaxed. To find leisure, you have to decide you want it and then insist that you have it, or you’re always going to be a victim of whatever is going on around you,” she says.
“You’ll find a lot of very successful people are much more disciplined in how they use technology. It’s really important that you have a say in using technology and not let it use you.”
The Need Rises
These days, with the worsening status of our environment and the precariousness of politics, a big-picture mindset and novel approaches are necessary. But rather than constantly ruminating over today’s problems and getting yourself in an aggravating rut, taking a step back and immersing yourself in enjoyment and relaxation may be the keys to unlocking how you can play an effective role in creating positive change.
In the grand scheme of things, perhaps society has it backwards; maybe leisure should be given priority status so that more creative, productive, game-changing ideas and work can ensue. At the very least, leisure shouldn’t be dismissed as a petty waste of time. Plus, it provides a vitalizing reason to keep on trucking through the chaotic hustle and bustle of life.