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December 4, 2018

'I’m not being creative,' I said to myself. Over and over again.

Here was the problem—I wanted to write more, to have those instantaneous little bursts of completely original thoughts. Those are when I get my best, biggest ideas. (Or wackiest ones.)

But I had to be realistic with myself. When could I find the time? After work, I was too tired. During my lunch break, I was concerned about my next meeting, and before work—well, I was rushing to work.

Sure, I needed to free up my time. But what I really needed was much more specific: I needed more open loops.

I didn’t understand what these were until a lightbulb went off while reading this delightful interview with Google’s resident productivity expert, Laura Mae Martin, who talks about how to cultivate more “shower moments” in your daily life—you know, the blissful pops of “Eureka!” that happen when you’re covering every inch of skin in lavender body wash, and suddenly solve that annoying work problem?

You don’t have to chase “shower moments” by taking 14 showers a day. Martin says you can use the same idea to create open loops by finding the gaps in your day.

You don’t have to chase 'shower moments' by taking 14 showers a day.

"Find the gaps in your day—a commute or waiting in line—and don’t look at your phone," she said in the interview. "I call this 'opening a loop,' which means you’re giving your brain the space to make new connections."

So I got serious: What was I doing all the time?

Take my commute. For a while I was reading, but when the train’s packed tighter than a can of Trader Joe’s sardines (don’t knock them, they’re good, I swear) concentrating is almost impossible. So I usually scrolled my emails and tried to respond to texts, even though shuttling underground meant they’d typically bounce back and I’d have to send them all. over. again. Not exactly the best use of my time.

Instead, I started writing little mini songs, scribbling them into a tiny notebook. And whaddya know, tapping into this other creative side of my brain not only made the commute go faster, but refilled my creative well. It woke up that side of my brain.

Turns out research backs up this idea. One team conducted a study with 90 psychology students, breaking them into three groups and giving them a creative task to do—one-third of the group were asked to complete the task without a break, another third were given a short break and asked to do another "creative" task, and the final third also received a short break, but were asked to do something completely unrelated to the task.

The groups who had breaks performed better than the one who didn’t, but the group who worked on a different task—what the research team called an incubation period—their overall output for the task was considered more creative.

Long story short: Breaks are good; open loops are great.

“One possible explanation for these findings is that when presented with complicated problems, the mind can often get stuck, finding itself tracing back through certain pathways of thinking again and again,” writes David Burkus, a business professor, in Harvard Business Review. “When you work on a problem continuously, you can become fixated on previous solutions.” Taking a break, on the other hand, lets your ideas marinate in the background.

Taking a break lets your ideas marinate in the background.

Here’s how to build more "open loops" into your day—and use them to your advantage.

Find the Gaps in Your Day

Even though we’re all searching for more free time in our lives, it pays to start looking at the time we already have—and how you’re using it.

A couple years ago, I noticed that when I waited for my coffee to brew in the morning I always instinctively reached for my phone. I don’t have to tell you that nothing exciting happened on that phone in those five minutes. So I started keeping a book in the kitchen instead. Slowly, I ended up reading an entire book in a month, simply by breaking off bite-sized pieces.

Write a list of all the gaps in your day—and how much time you usually have during them.

Own Your Thinking Time

Open loops should be just that—nice and open. But you do want to ruminate on some idea in the background. Whether that’s a work issue, or your pending New Year’s resolutions, or the last line of the first draft of your book, keep the idea of what you want to work out in the forefront of your mind.

The point isn’t to agonize, but to simply remember what it is you actually want to figure out.

Remember When You Get Your Best Ideas

This sounds really simple, but in the moment it can be a challenge. You’re so excited by your idea that you might have a hard time replicating it.

Go through the past week in your mind—when did you feel the most open, the most free? Looking at my own week, I had my best ideas while lying on my couch (after my phone had died), and on the very tail-end of a run with a friend.

During these moments, I wasn’t forcing my mind to jump to the next task—it simply did it, on its own. Eureka, I thought. That’s it. Once you spot those moments, you can loop back into them, again and again.

Read next: Why 'Wasting Time' Isn't Really a Thing

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