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How I Learned to Love (Some) Interruptions

Interruptions are the annoying, disruptive, beeping, booping constant of our lives -- phones ringing; notifications buzzing; bosses, coworkers, spouses and kids clamoring for our attention. How we react to them -- and the toll it takes on our productivity and concentration -- is a well-studied subject (see Wikipedia on Interruption Science). 

But not all breaks are bad. External disruptions -- those that you didn't initiate yourself -- tend to dent your productivity more. Self-initiated interruptions are usually better -- even whiling away time on Facebook may spark off an interesting idea or a rewarding connection to a business contact.

But the most beneficial self-initiated breaks need some structure. Here are some that you can work into your day to boost your creativity, focus and even your health.

- Interrupt your pain-inducing posture: How many times have you straightened up from your desk and realized that long hours of being hunched over your computer has given you an acheing back or a crick in your neck? How many people do you know suffer from Repetitive Strain Injury? A handy little program called AntiRSI schedules frequent 13 second micropauses for you to look up and stretch. Here’s one guy’s experience using it and how it helped his back pain -- and his alertness and energy levels.

- The Stop tool: Sit back; Think; Organise your thoughts; Proceed. This technique by Tim Gallwey, inventor of the Inner Game, is a great technique giving yourself a reality check while you’re focusing on completing something or creating a solution. Ask yourself: Is what I have spent the past 30 minutes doing still in line with what I'm trying to achieve, or have I accidentally drifted down a side road?

- Watch a funny video: You may groan when you think of all the time you whiled away watching silly YouTube clips, but studies show that a good mood is conducive to creativity and problem solving. Even watching a short video of a laughing baby can activate the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region is linked to decision-making, empathy and emotion. Gearing it up may help the brain attain new insights by detecting ideas it may have otherwise ignored.

- Creative showers: This kind of break when you’re chewing over a problem has a long history, dating back to Archimedes getting into his bath and shouting, “Eureka!” when he saw his bath water rise. When you’re at a mental impasse, switching gears and taking a break to do a mindless task -- showering, fishing or driving — might help spark creative insights, as your mind wanders from "lather-rinse-repeat" to the recent problem, and then back again.

Have you interrupted yourself and ended up enhancing your productivity, creativity or health? What works best for you?

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Comment by Scott Murphy on January 17, 2013 at 5:53am

Nice post!  

As the self-declared former foosball champion at the Manoa Innovation Center (hopefully, undisputed :), I totally agree with your point about taking a break, watching a fun video and enjoying sometime off.   Work hard, play hard.


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