“I can’t take a break right now, I’ve been trying for three straight days and It just won’t work” my friend was telling me this as he sat hunched on top of his desk, bags under his eyes and a worried expression on his face. “That is precisely why you need to stop working on it for now”, was what I told him as I took a couple of cold ones out of the fridge.
He looked at me like I was crazy, he couldn’t possibly relax and drink beers with me, and specially not when he had already spent three days to work on code that been estimated in hours. I promised him that if he had just one drink with me, he would find the answer he had been looking for these past three days.
No more than two hours had passed, and we were sitting on the floor talking about life and whatnot; when all of a sudden he lighted up completely and jumped back to his pc.
He had this look on his face like he had just heard the answer of life, the universe and everything; and it didn’t take long before he finished all the work that he wasn’t able to wrap his head around for days.
It happens, we focus so hard on the work we’re trying to do that we lose sight of the original idea. Tiredness, tunnel vision and outright stubbornness can prevent us from being able to think outside of the box we ourselves created around the problem we’re facing.
You can push through all these obstacles and move forward to reach your goal. And there are definitely times when you’ll have to do this.
But most of the time though, I would argue that what you really need is to take a break.
How taking a break at work helps you think better.
Imagine yourself with your preferred arm stretched forward and your hand open with the palm facing upwards; when all of a sudden a ball of light lands on top of it, allowing you to observe it fully and filling you with hope and determination.
I know it is a pretty odd example, but this is exactly what happens when you get a really good idea: You’re open to the possibilities of it happening and then, all of a sudden, a spark of brilliance pops up in your head.
You didn’t will the idea into your mind, you didn’t study or train to get it there. It just kind of… presented itself to you, just like a really good gift.
The thing about really good ideas though, is that they’re pretty hard to come by. So, when they actually do, people don’t really want to let go of them.
You squeeze your hand around the orb of light, only ever so slightly, to make sure that it can’t wander off elsewhere as you work on it. And this is often enough for you to hold on to the idea until the job is done.
But what happens when you get stuck? You become more desperate, so you start holding on to the ball of light a little bit tighter, and then a little more. You grasp it so tightly into your hand that the light starts to seem dimmer. And you keep squeezing until you’re holding it so tightly that you can only see the light through the little hole that forms in between the fingers of your clenched fist.
As time goes by, and you keep your fist clenched around your idea, it becomes harder and harder to even remember what it was about originally. You can’t see the light through your hand so you have to imagine what it used to look like.
And when you take a break, something magical happens: You loose your grip on the orb of light and you can see it shine all over again. You remember the way the original idea used to look like, and you are able to break free of the box that your own hands constructed around it.
I know it may seem scary to loosen the grasp on your idea, even for just a second. You may fear that if it just gets a chance, it will slip away forever. But this doesn’t really happen that often, once an idea has come to us, and we have nurtured it for a while, it tends to take a liking to us.
So when we relax the grasp that we have on it, instead of running away, the idea just shines all the brighter. And because we have spent so much time getting to know our idea, we can see it better than the first time around too.
I’d argue that real breakthroughs seldom happen while we’re stressing over at work. Instead I’d put my money on them happening while we’re out with friends, or fresh after a night’s worth of sleep, or taking a walk on the woods, or after a really good workout.
Time spent relaxing the mind and allowing for our hands to lessen their grasp on our ideas isn’t just an integral part of work, it’s the fuel that allows the genius in all of us to really shine.
Why it’s okay to take a break.
When we stress over an idea or a piece of work, we lose the power to see it clearly. And it’s only by relaxing the grasp we have around it that we can actually begin to see it again for what it is. This is where true brilliance happens.
And it is also why sometimes it’s okay to just take a break.