Why taking breaks can be good for productivity
I think procrastination gets a bad rep.
It’s something you’re meant to grow out of and certainly, as a busy graduate student, there’s no time to procrastinate. Well, I think procrastination is really misunderstood and should not have an immediate negative connotation.
When you don’t feel like doing something, there is often a reason why. For instance when I was younger, I would often procrastinate on assignments because I didn’t want to dedicate that much time to them. By procrastinating, I would end up spending less time overall and would at least be enjoying the lead-up time before I started working. However, this lead-up time would stretch and stretch until I would finally be starting the assignment too late into the night, being so tired the next day and then feeling only ready for another lead-up time instead of any concentrated work.
But sometimes, after starting a task, I also noticed that taking a break or “procrastinating” actually led to epiphanies about the task I had been working on earlier. I first realized this on my own, but later found out that there actually is a scientific basis for this phenomenon.
A book called Learning How to Learn by Dr. Barbara Oakley talks about the idea of diffuse mode thinking, or the idea that your mind is good at thinking about problems in the background. Have you ever wondered why the best ideas come from random moments waiting for the bus, taking a shower or brushing your teeth? Taking background time to think about the answers to your current math problem set, or what the next step in your experiment should be, or what to write about in this blog post, actually helps you more in the long run.
Often, when I’m immersed in my research, time seems to accelerate. The same me whose attention wanders after 10 minutes after reading a textbook is suddenly perfectly motivated to spend hours trying to understand why a certain region in the genome is active in early neurodevelopment and how I can model it in the lab. Especially with computational work, I might be staring at the computer for hours to run different simulations. But a strategy that I realized really works for me is that if I run into a bug that I can’t immediately solve, I step away from the computer and take a break. Inevitably, even if I’m not thinking about the problem at hand at all during this break, I come back with fresh eyes and more often than not, a way to diagnose my mistake.
And of course, you can always procrastinate by switching tasks. If I’m frustrated with my code and don’t want to work on it anymore, I’ll switch to homework for my Diagnostic Imaging class.
If I don’t seem to be making much headway on that homework, I’ll positively procrastinate by tackling my laundry or cleaning up my room.
If you’re really procrastinating, try to understand the reason why. Part of the reason why I always used to procrastinate is because I knew that I wouldn’t have time to do those other hobbies afterwards because my work always filled the time I had. However, once I realized that work didn’t always have to maximally fill my time, I started being more intentional with the time I decided to spend on work. For me, 30 minutes of focus work is a lot more valuable than one hour of unfocused work, and it also means I can spend 30 minutes on anything that I desire.
So I say, go ahead and read a chapter of the book you wanted to finish instead. Go outside for a walk. Watch an episode of your favorite TV show. Use that break however you’d like so you’re ready for your task with a fresh perspective. It’s a 2-in-1 deal and you can guilt-free enjoy the positive effects of positive “procrastination.”
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