You finally hit “send” on that report you spent all week writing, and you feel great. It was a long slog, but now you can finally pour yourself a well-deserved glass of wine and kick back–or just take a long, guiltless nap. Right?
Actually, you might have the order backward. You probably should’ve paused to treat yourself midway through, not just after finishing. Call it procrastinating if you want, but it might’ve made things easier. Here’s why:
Hard Tasks Get Easier With A Little Time Off
Not all work tasks are created equal. The semester just ended here at the University of Texas, where I teach. That meant I had to assign grades to the more than 90 students in my lecture class. But once I’d graded all their work, my job wasn’t done–I still had a big round of data-entry staring me down.
This is a rote task, not a complex one. Keying grades into the system doesn’t exactly require my best self, cognitively speaking. It just requires putting in the time and making sure everything gets entered accurately. For tasks like this, procrastination is your enemy. The best solution is usually just to put your nose down and then give yourself a little reward when you’re done.
More intellectually taxing work is different. Trying to plow through tasks like those is usually a bad idea. If you don’t procrastinate–within reason–by giving yourself little breaks and rewards along the way, you’ll make things a good deal harder and slower for yourself.
When Break Time Helps Your Brain
A lot of what you’re asked to do at work demands creative problem solving. For those kinds of projects, it helps to give yourself frequent breaks. Why? Because chipping away at tough problems is actually really taxing on your memory. You’ve got to pull information out of your recollection of past experiences in order to come up with a good solution. So chances are if you’re not making much headway, you’re not actually retrieving anything that’s helpful.
Not only will this eventually frustrate you, it’ll probably keep you focusing on the same bits of information repeatedly, rather than seeing the problem in a new light. As soon as you notice yourself retreading the same ground again and again, that’s your queue to step away from problem for a while. Give your memory a chance to settle–yes, procrastinate a little. Ideally, take a nap or go to bed for the night.
One of the things that happens while you sleep is that your knowledge about new situations becomes a little more abstract. In a process called “synaptic pruning,” certain cells in your brain weed through the connections formed among neurons that aren’t being used that much. As a result, you lose some of extraneous details.
When you approach the problem again once you wake up, your memory is fresh. You’re able to ask yourself slightly different and more abstract questions than you were able to before you slept. That increases the chances that you’ll pull out new information that will give you a more valuable perspective on whatever you’re working on.
Bad Moods Slow You Down
Sleeping on it isn’t the only productive way to procrastinate during a tough project. You should also take a break to do something pleasant. Quite a bit of work by the late psychologist Alice Isen and her colleagues has shown that a positive mood can make you a more effective and creative problem solver.
There are lots of ways to boost your mood. Going for a walk can help in two ways. First, the exercise itself releases chemicals in the brain that can lift your mood. Second, if you’re able to walk someplace with nice scenery, that can also make you feel better; researchers have found that spending time in nature can lower stress and improve creativity.
Giving yourself a little reward can have a similar effect. Buying yourself something you want or just eating a snack will also create a small burst of positive emotion–temporarily brushing aside any frustration you’re feeling with the project you’re puzzling over. When you’re aggravated with your work, pessimism sinks in. Those nagging feelings of hopelessness can really slow you down. But when you intentionally press “pause” in order to make yourself feel good, you can sail right over those potential roadblocks.
What’s more, negative moods tend to decrease the amount of working memory you have available. Working memory is the amount of information you can hold in mind at once. So the larger its capacity, the better you’ll be at tackling complex tasks–another reason why procrastinating in order to do something enjoyable may actually be the more efficient thing to do.
So next time you get stuck while working on a difficult task, think about stopping for a moment to reward yourself before you finish–and then again afterward.