Melanie Valenzia

26 September 2023

Strategist’s Digest: How to take a break that will boost creativity 

Contagious digests the most interesting and relevant research from the world of advertising and beyond, because there’s just too much to read and too little time

Photo by Matias North on Unsplash

Take a Break, But Make It Different! Moderating Effects of Incubation Task Specificity on Advertising Idea Generation

By Sarah Schütmaata, Julian Felix Kopka, Lawrence Ang and Tobias Langner. First published in the Journal of Advertising

Give it to me in one sentence.

Creatives produce better ideas after taking a break to do something different.

Give me a little more detail.

The researchers devised two experiments to find out if taking a break from a creative task to do something else improves idea generation.

In the first experiment, participants either performed a task using so-called creative selection (choosing a solution from options stored in memory) or creative configuration (combining different elements to create a new solution). The creative selection task was to list as many functions as possible for a paper clip, and the configuration task was to come up with as many different television commercials as possible for the paper clip. Some participants worked continuously on the task, while others were told to take breaks to play sudoku, which requires creative selection.

The results showed that playing sudoku did not help the participants performing the selection task (listing uses for a paper clip) to generate more ideas because both activities required the same thinking processes. However, playing sudoku helped people to unwind from performing the configuration task, and they subsequently produced better ideas.

The second experiment followed a similar structure but also included the option to take a break and read a comic book, which requires configuration thinking. The researchers found that participants who performed the selection task and read the comic book generated a lot more creative ideas than if they played sudoku or didn’t take a break at all. Again, the participants performing the configuration task produced better ideas when they took a break to play sudoku.

Why is this interesting?

Research shows that taking a break from a task, known as an incubation period, can support creative performance. But the researchers discovered when they interviewed advertising agencies before conducting their experiments that few of them actively manage or encourage incubation periods. This study provides recommendations about how agencies can manage their breaks more efficiently and design their breaks depending on the project they’re working on to improve their creative output.

Any weaknesses?

One of the study’s limitations is that it focuses on the early-stage creativity phase and doesn’t address the impact of incubation and neural fatigue in later phases of the creative process.

Also, it only investigates taking breaks at work and doesn’t consider the impact of other contextual effects on advertising creativity, for example, leisure time at home, which is very relevant considering the rise of hybrid working.

Where can I find the whole report?

Here, but it’s not free.

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