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How Interruptions Can Make You More Creative

Woman stretching

Photo by Lex in the City

Interruptions are one of the pet hates of creative people. There are few things more frustrating than having your attention scrambled by an intrusion just as you are becoming pleasantly absorbed in creative flow. Whether the interruption comes in the form of a phone call, e-mail, or someone hovering over your desk and saying ‘Can I have a quick word?’ the result is annoyingly similar – your concentration is broken, your time is taken up by someone else’s needs, and it’s hard to pick up the thread of your work afterwards.

I’ve previously written about the creative problems caused by interruptions in Why you need to be organised to be creative (the first chapter of my e-book on Time Management for Creative People) and offered some tips on minimising their impact in Ring-fence your most creative time.

I was also interested to come across scientific evidence (via 43 Folders and the New York Times) that ‘Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information’. For example:

in a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites. (NYT)

So there it is. Focused creative work and interruptions just don’t mix. QED.

Or so I thought until I stumbled upon a new kind of interruption, while trying to solve a different problem…

How interruptions cured my backache

I’ve written before about the difficulty I’ve had with back pain caused by too many hours hunched over the laptop. Now, as a trained Reverse Therapist I’m fully aware that the back pain is a not-so-subtle message from my body, prompting me not to spend so many hours hunched over the computer. But I’ve never been one for taking this kind of hint gracefully: ‘It’s all very well for my back to wimp out, but how else am I going to get my work done?’

The key, of course, is that my back pain came not from using the computer per se, but from sitting hunched over it, for hours on end. Hardly what Mother Nature intended. I managed to improve the situation slightly by moving the screen to eye level and building regular exercise into my day. I also sought the help of Aarti Shah, my wonderful chiropractor – I always leave her office feeling 2 inches taller, which may actually be the case.

Aarti reminded me of her usual advice for computer users – make sure you look up and stretch every few minutes, and take a 10 minute break every hour. It was hard to argue with that advice – but harder still to put it into action.

I like to think I’m reasonably self-disciplined, but the hypnotic effect of the computer meant that once I became immersed in my work, hours could fly by before I became aware of my surroundings again – usually prompted by the tension in my back. And it wasn’t as if I was spending those hours blissfully absorbed in creative flow. I usually experienced a certain amount of flow while writing in the mornings, but by the afternoon my energy dipped, the pain increased and I found it harder and harder to concentrate. At one point, I started to wonder whether I’d be physically able to continue blogging at all.

Then I stumbled across a piece of software called AntiRSI, via this description in Lifehacker:

AntiRSI schedules inobtrusive 13 second pauses every four minutes (if you don’t take your hands off the keyboard for the full pause, it restarts the timer). Likewise, breaks happen every 50 minutes, and last for 8 minutes (again, you have to stop typing for it to count).

At first glance this was about as appealing as getting twice as many e-mails every day. Surely the last thing I needed was more interruptions? But I was running out of options so thought I’d give it a go.

To begin with I thought there was something wrong with AntiRSI timer. It felt like it was interrupting me every 30 seconds rather than every 4 minutes. I was amazed to find how quickly I became absorbed in the computer. But I persevered. Every 4 minutes, an image flashed up on my screen with a 13-second timer. This was my cue to stop, look up and stretch my arms and neck. Every 50 minutes it was time for a 10 minute break, which I used for small, tasks that engaged my body and senses – washing the dishes, taking out the rubbish, filing papers, aikido exercises.

Micro-pause

The biggest surprise was that I wasn’t annoyed by the interruptions. Once I got used to them, I even started to look forward to them, and the feeling of relief they brought. And several times I found myself instinctively stopping, stretching and looking around – a couple of seconds before the ‘micro-pause’ message flashed up on the screen. By training myself to pay more attention to my body, I was noticing and responding to the signals prompting me to readjust and compensate for my habit of tensing up.

The first morning of using AntiRSI, I was pleasantly surprised – my energy and alertness continued throughout the morning and well into the afternoon. I felt physically lighter. I noticed what a fabulous view I had been missing – the sky and skyline of the Canary Wharf towers. Each time I looked up I noticed how the sky changed colour and the clouds had shifted formation. Even as I worked in the virtual world of my laptop, I felt present and connected to the physical world around me.

Two weeks later, my back is feeling much better. The tension hasn’t gone completely, but the pain is definitely fading away – and I’m able to spend enough time on the computer to get my work done.

Can interruptions help creative flow?

As well as the physical benefits, I’ve noticed a definite improvement in my ability to think clearly and focus on creative work. Each time I stop and stretch, I feel my concentration sharpen up. It seems that the AntiRSI interruptions are actually helping me to stay in creative flow.

At first it didn’t seem to make sense that interruptions could help me stay in flow. After all, one of the key elements of flow described by Csikszentmihalyi is that ‘distractions are excluded from consciousness’. So how could such a deliberate distraction as a message flashing up on the screen have a positive effect on flow?

I’m not 100% sure about this, but I think the clue lies in another of Csikszentmihalyi’ elements of flow. He tells us that flow occurs when ‘there is a balance between challenges and skills’. Relative to our skill level, if the challenge of a task is too low, we will get bored; if the challenge is too great, we become frustrated. Csikszentmihalyi is writing about the external challenge we face, but I think the same principle of balance applies to the way we approach a challenge: if we don’t make sufficient effort, we won’t make much progress and will become bored; but if we push ourselves too hard, we are likely to tense up, get stuck and become frustrated.

As I discovered to my cost, it’s very easy to get sucked into a compulsive state of mind while working on the computer, leading to physical and mental tension rather than the effortless quality of flow. The micro-pauses and breaks prompted by AntiRSI keep pulling me back from the brink of tensing up, allowing me to balance effort and relaxation in order to stay in flow.

Another explanation is suggested by the scientific studies mentioned above, about the effect of interruptions. Now, I’m no neuroscientist (and the NYT doesn’t give titles or links for the research papers), but it sounds to me as though the experiments were measuring the effect of switching from one task to another. E.g. from ‘writing reports or computer code’ to ‘responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages’ and then back to writing. The negative effect of task-switching seems to be caused by the change in mental activity – if I stop writing a report and start responding to e-mail, I am not only changing the subject of my attention, but also changing thinking styles – presumably engaging all kinds of mental circuits that were not involved in the first task. Then I switch back to my report and have to change mental gears all over again. No wonder it takes me a while to pick up again where I left off.

But the kind of interruptions created by AntiRSI are very different. They don’t prompt me to switch from one mental task to another, but to create a ‘micro-pause’ in my work, where I do nothing but stop and reconnect with my body and surroundings. I don’t check e-mail or start reading something else – I just stop, look, listen and breathe. It feels as though I’ve ‘reset’ the system and regained a bit of mental and physical balance.

Based on this totally unscientific subjective experiment, I suggest dividing interruptions into two categories:

1. those that involve task-switching and have a negative effect on concentration and creative flow
2. those that are only pauses in the current task, and which can help maintain concentration and creative flow.

Another activity where concentration is of critical importance is meditation. So it’s interesting to note the availability of meditation interval timers, which can be set to chime ‘every 3, 4, 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes’ – to help meditators stay centred and focused.

How to use pauses to stay in creative flow

These tips are based on my experience of using AntiRSI, but they should be easy to use with a different means of creating automatic ‘pause prompts’ – such as an automatic chimer/alarm. PC users can try WorkRave (also recommended by Lifehacker). I can’t test this myself so if you try it please leave a comment below to let us know what you think of it.

  1. Set up automatic timed ‘pause prompts’ – it’s very important that you don’t rely on your own self-disciopline to do this, unless you have superhuman discipline!
  2. When it’s time for a pause:
    - stop and look around, firstly paying attention to your peripheral vision, then focusing on the furthest point you can see
    focus on the sensations in your body – start with your feet, then sweep your attention up to your head, so that you are aware of all the sensations in your body
    – take a deep breath and stretch your arms and shoulders.
  3. When it’s time for a 10 minute break,
    – stand up and do something that engages your whole body and senses

    – e.g. a brief walk, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, yoga, tai chi or similar exercise).
  4. Experiment with the spacing and duration of micro-pauses and breaks, until you find a rhythm that suits you best.

How about you?

  • Do you find your creativity and energy dips after long spells on the computer? How do you deal with this?
  • Have you used AntiRSI or similar software to keep you focused and relaxed? How did you get on with it?
  • Can you recommend any other software that does a similar job?

If you find AntiRSI beneficial, I’m sure Onne who created it would appreciate a donation – Paypal link on his site.

Comments

  1. As a tai chi (taijiquan) teacher, I really enjoyed this article. It got me to thinking back to how my teacher, Master Jou Tsung Hwa, used to remind me that the most powerful way to use tai chi was to intersperse it into your life – to meld it as part of your way of life, instead of feeling pressured to carve out that hour here or there. Sure, while dedicating an hour or more to focus on it daily can lead to mastery, most people don’t have that kind of time. So, the real enlightenment, he claimed, was to fuse the WAY of it into the “things you do” in your daily life. How few of us actually see it that way! Thanks for reminding us to take those “breaks” that actually make us MORE creative and productive!!!

  2. Thanks Loretta, I’m delighted to hear my article resonated with your experience of tai chi. Very wise words from your teacher. It reminds me of attending meditation retreats at a Buddhist monastery – the first time I went, I thought ‘meditation’ was what happened on the cushion, and was a little sceptical of the idea of describing our daily tasks (preparing food, cleaning up etc) as ‘working meditation’. But the more I did it, the more I realised the teachers were trying to get us to approach all aspects of life with mindfulness, not just special activities like sitting meditation. It sounds like tai chi takes a similar approach. I’ve been learning aikido for 18 months, which also emphasizes the art as a way of approaching daily life.

  3. Great article, Mark.

    Glad to read the software helped you out. Looks very appealing.

    David Airey’s last blog post..All about Paul Rand

  4. Thanks David. Come to think of it, I guess comments can be another kind of creative interruption.

  5. Hi Mark, just wanted to let you know I discovered this website through the Podcast from Antonio Gould and I’ll def. be back to read some more here – very interesting things. I blogged a little about the podcast and you too :) Hope you don’t mind me commenting her, since it’s not directly related to this article. just wanted to let you know :)

    karlita’s last blog post..Interesting podcast about creative business on the web

  6. Thanks for the comment and link Karlita, much appreciated.When the comments are as nice as that I think I can allow a little off-topic discussion. :-)

  7. I don’t know that I’m all that creative, but I think you’re on solid ground with the pause-versus-switch analysis. I will move from working at my laptop (which is in a stand, so the monitor’s at eye level) to scribbling on paper at my desk, to sketching on the whiteboard or flipchart mounted on the wall. So those are each potential pauses from work in one of the other modes.

    Another useful tip: drink lots of fluids while you’re working. Eventually, you’ll have to pause.

    Dave Ferguson’s last blog post..Which pegboard for your knowledge tools?

  8. Thanks Dave, grea tip! :-)

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