We’ve all been there: you’ve been working on a task for what seems like ages and you’re still getting nowhere. You know you should probably take a break but at this point anything else just seems like a silly distraction. Until finally, you do give up and head to the kitchen for a cup of tea, when suddenly, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
So how does this work? What’s behind these sudden moments of clarity? Turns out it’s the change of scenery that does the trick.
It all boils down to the impact of novelty on the human brain. Research by UCL medical doctors and psychologists has shown that the part of our brain which is responsible for regulating our motivation levels has a stronger response to new information than it does to things that are already familiar to us. Our levels of motivation are controlled by the release of dopamine in the brain, and novelty has been proven to have a direct impact on these dopamine levels.
So this means that if you trade your usual working spot – i.e. your desk – for different surroundings, chances are the new impressions forming in your brain will lead to a dopamine surge that gives you a new boost of motivation, which in turn can help you become more productive.
But it’s not just your motivation levels that benefit from novelty; your creativity can too. According to organisational behaviour professor Kimberly Elsbach, taking breaks from your usual surroundings allows your mind a chance to refresh, to engage with new impressions and as such restore its creative abilities.
It may also just be a matter of getting away from negative connotations. As psychiatrist Ralph Ryback points out, our minds are great at making connections between particular situations and environments. So if you’ve been struggling at your desk for hours, chances are that your brain will (unconsciously) link that lack of productivity with your surroundings, creating an environment that’s hardly positive to work in.
So next time you’re feeling stuck, just get up and move around a little bit. Not only do you deserve a break, you need it. Doing a mindless task like making yourself a cuppa may just do the trick, and if that doesn’t work, relocate.
Don’t just move anywhere though, find a spot that works for you. Oh, and when you’re on the move, make sure you have your notebook or phone at hand: the best ideas have a habit of sneaking up on us when we least expect it.