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Make Time to Play: How Breaks, Hobbies, and Boredom Can Improve Creativity

Hustle. Grind. Get things done. Move fast and break things. Modern productivity is all about efficiency and eking every last ounce of work from each moment of our day. It’s not unusual to hear stories of people who regularly work fifty, sixty, or even more hours per week. Heck, maybe that’s the situation you’re in. Many large companies and startups offer so many services at the office that you can practically live there, so some people end up doing just that. But all that extra work comes with diminishing returns.

Time and time again, studies have shown that working more (than about 40 hours a week) won’t get you better results. And past a certain point, your productivity will likely plummet. The simple truth is that people aren’t built to work from the moment we wake until the moment we go to sleep. So what can help you be more productive? In an ironic twist, the best ways to improve productivity are taking breaks, playing more, and being bored.

But it doesn’t just have to be about improving your productivity. Taking time away from work has other benefits like:

  • Improving your satisfaction,
  • Building resilience and health,
  • Broadening your perspective, and
  • Making you a more interesting person

Take a break

Start by making time in your day that is separate from work. Create cushions around and between your scheduled work hours. Instead of eating at your desk (or attending a working lunch meeting), take a walk or grab lunch with a friend. Walk to a bathroom, water cooler, or coffee station that’s farther away. Take an afternoon walk when you feel your attention flagging. Leave your work at work (or if you work from home, constrain it to a specific place at home).

Those times away from your desk may not seem like productive time, but your brain continues churning. How many times have you figured out a problem while in the shower, taking a walk, or after a good night’s sleep? That’s not coincidence. When you take a break, your brain stops fixating on the solutions you’ve already explored and opens up to new possibilities.

So instead of churning on the same problem for hours on end, take a break! Whether you’re taking a walk, meditating, or doing something else, those mental breaks aren’t as unproductive as you might think.

Play actively, not passively

Taking breaks is good, but what sort of things are worth pursuing in those breaks? You might be tempted to binge on Netflix, play video games, or browse social media. In small doses, these may help you unwind and give you a quick hit of dopamine. But replacing work solely with this kind of passive consumption is ultimately unfulfilling. Your brain won’t have the freedom to wander. And you’ll finish those activities without any sense of accomplishment.

Instead, cultivate play that will challenge and reward you. Seek out active play that will encourage you to:

  • Learn something new: Broadening your knowledge, whether work-related or not, builds your capacity for connecting ideas and making unexpected links. Whether you’re learning a new language, a new physical skill (like juggling, origami, or woodworking), or simply reading about a new topic, learning opens new pathways in your mind and helps you to connect otherwise disparate concepts in new and unexpected ways.
  • Create something for yourself: Engaging in creative hobbies outside of work allows you the freedom to make something on your own terms. That freedom allows you to pursue your own self-actualization—the ultimate pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—far better than any other employment. Plus, it’s far easier to enter a blissful flow state working on something you care about, and it’s far more rewarding to enjoy something you’ve made than something others have made.
  • Socialize with others: Spending time with others face to face can improve your immune system and your mental health. Despite all of our social networks, loneliness is on the rise. Time with friends, family, or even strangers can help counter that.
  • Do something good: Volunteering for something meaningful to you is not only good for the cause you’re giving your time to. It also gives you a sense of purpose and makes your time feel better spent. Studies have shown that giving some of your time away can make you feel like you have more time.

Find playgrounds for ideas

I’ve been building a little mini site and its animated, textured, low-fi and has sounds and I’m so happy making it. Sometimes I forget the value of play and building stupid, silly, inconsequential things...

Rogie King

Even within the context of your work, you can take breaks and play. Whether you’re a designer or a developer, consider making a regular habit of creating something for yourself in your medium of choice: code, pixels, words, or even physical artistic media like drawing or sculpture. There are lots of daily prompt options out there if you need something to help kickstart you:

  • Daily UI will send you 100 days of interface design challenges.
  • Writer’s Digest Prompts are a great ever-growing collection of ideas to start writing from.
  • The Daily Programmer subreddit offers code problems ranging from easy to hard throughout the week.
  • Creative Sprint runs 30-day challenges that combine creative prompts and creative materials.

You can also create a personal website. No, I’m not talking about a blog or a portfolio, though it can certainly include that. A true personal website can be a place for you to play with ideas, experiment with layouts or code concepts, and have fun expressing yourself. It can be something you keep in a folder on your computer and never publish, or it can be your central hub on the web for all things you.

Beyond a personal website, there are plenty of ways to play with ideas and share them with others. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • CodePen is a great place to start playing with web development, code your own design experiments, or riff on what others have done. CodePen Challenges are monthly contests arranged around a specific theme.
  • Dribbble is a social network for designers, illustrators, and artists to share their work. Once invited, you can post whatever you’re working on. (I’ve posted interfaces for professional work, card designs for my son’s birthday, icon designs for side projects, and more.) You can also rebound other people’s ideas or participate in Playoffs, like Jerrod Maruyama’s #QuickieMickey or the occasional StickerMule giveaway.
  • Glitch is a community built around making it easy to make your own web-based apps, whether you want to make something from scratch, collaborate with a team, or just remix something others have made. It has a fun, retro vibe and a friendly community.

Heaps of hobbies

“To him who observes them from afar, it appears as though they are scattering and dissipating their energies, while in reality they are channeling and strengthening them.”

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (father of modern neuroscience)

Another great option for active play is cultivating a hobby. In surveying fellow designers and developers, I was amazed at the depth and breadth of the hobbies they had outside of work. Aaron Gustafson, editor in chief of A List Apart and web standards advocate at Microsoft, maintains an amazing reef tank. Simon Cox, SEO specialist, wrote about how his non-digital hobby of model making has helped him feel happier and more balanced. Rogie King, designer at Dribbble, creates amazing illustrations. Lynn Fisher, Chief Creative Office at &yet, makes delightful web projects like A Single Div, Top Chef Stats, Hollywood Age Gap, and The Food Place to name a few.

One of the most common hobbies was playing musical instruments, whether solo or with a group. I took piano lessons in middle and high school, and I’ve recently gotten back into playing. Other designers and developers I’ve worked with are way more prolific than me, making their own bands and performing live. A former manager of mine was in a band for years and has recently turned his passion for music into a full-time gig by creating a startup in Richmond called Orbital Music Park that helps musicians (amateur or professional) find others to play with.

Whether your hobbies become a full-time gig or remain a way to enjoy your free time, cultivate something that takes practice outside your area of expertise. It can help you build confidence, grow as a person, meet new people, sustain you through low periods at work, and pass your time more enjoyably than binging the latest hot show or browsing Facebook for hours.

Boredom is a fine pastime

Last but not least, it’s also perfectly okay to do nothing. Let yourself get bored. I give you permission. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that we should all take some time to get bored regularly. Why? Turns out, doing nothing and being bored is actually healthy and important.

Taking time to do nothing can help stave off burnout. Being bored inevitably leads to daydreaming, which improves creativity and problem-solving. Doing nothing also gives us space to rest and marshal energy to be more productive at other times. So the next time you find yourself bored somewhere, revel in it. Leave the phone in your pocket. Let the boredom wash over you. And perhaps enjoy a daydream or two.

Share your play!

I hope this article finds you either nodding along in vigorous agreement or seriously considering how you can take more time for yourself. All work and no play make us all dull humans. Let’s be sharper and more interesting instead by playing more often.

How do you play? I’d love to hear!

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