It’s 2:30 p.m. You’re sitting in your cubicle, staring blankly at the computer monitor. You have work to do, and your boss could stop by to check on you at any moment. But what you really want to do is take a walk, or maybe a nap. Anything to refresh you and help you concentrate.

Don’t feel guilty. Everyone has been there. And maybe more of us should pay attention to the signals our brains are giving us in these situations.

That’s because the brain works better, delivering more creative and innovative thoughts and ideas, when it has a little downtime.

In other words, the brain needs flexibility. Which means there’s a business case that work flex helps lead to brain flex.

For starters, when you have more control over your schedule, whether you’re shifting hours, telecommuting, or taking advantage of other flexible options, you can work around your brain’s natural downtimes.

Ultradian rhythms are biological cycles that repeat during the day and govern our bodies’ energy, mood, and cognitive function. They operate in 90-minute intervals, which means that none of us works at our peak for eight hours in a row. And one person’s high point might be another’s slump (think night owl vs. early bird). Work flexibility allows us to focus when we’re at our most effective, and take breaks when we need them—not when they’re imposed on us.

Those breaks are critical for another reason too: sociologist Christine Carter, Ph.D., says creative insights are more likely to occur when we’re not trying so hard to get them.

“The only time our brain generates creative insight is when we’re not doing anything else—when we’re not focused on anything else,” Carter says in an in interview with 1MFWF. “So that’s why we have this hilarious cliche that all of our best ideas happen in the shower—because there is no other place in American culture anymore where we get these ideas! …

“When we just stare into space and let ourselves daydream, our brain actually becomes very active—much more active than if we were focused on a difficult problem, for example. All parts of our brain light up, and what our brain is doing is it’s drawing connections between all the things you didn’t previously see as connected, and that is where our creative insights come from: those new neural connections that are formed while daydreaming.”

Again, flexibility may contribute to that kind of stimulation, letting a worker create blocks of unstructured time during which she can allow her brain to “light up.”

And as author Brigid Schulte notes in an interview with 1MFWF, in today’s knowledge-driven economy, companies are only as good as their next big idea.

When people are relaxed and positive—as they are likely to be when they have flexibility and a more balanced life—they get a burst of gamma wave activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, Schulte says. That’s where insight is born.

“Instead of glorifying long hours and overwork as a sign of work devotion, science is clearly showing us that really good, hard work is done when we alternate between periods of focused, concentrated work—that uses our analytical prefrontal cortex—and these moments of downtime where our more creative right brain gets to come out to play,” she says.

“Being clear about the mission of your work. Setting priorities and tackling them in concentrated blocks first thing in the morning, then taking a break, is a far more productive, effective, and humane way to work that can lead to more work-life balance or integration, rather than starting the day checking email, setting in motion a day of distraction and putting out fires, then staying late at the office to finally get to the big project, or answering emails late at night to show how work-devoted you are.”

Flex workers may know this instinctively, but many of them still fight the misconception that they are less productive than their 9-to-5, cubicle-bound colleagues. As a result, some workers may destroy the possible brain benefits of flexibility by trying to stay busy all the time.

“Typically, companies consider any non-work task unproductive: cyberloafing, taking breaks, napping, online shopping, using social media, etc.,” writes Ashley Speagle of PGi. “However, research shows that these flights of fancy can benefit productivity at work. …

“Non-work activities also allow new perspectives and solutions to bloom for better problem-solving, long-term decision-making, and prioritizing.”

Those same kinds of non-work tasks contribute to “cognitive flexibility,” which is simply “the ability to efficiently switch between tasks,” according to an article from Abbott. Reduced cognitive flexibility can hinder higher-level thought processes, like speech and decision-making, the article says.

So, how does a person improve cognitive flexibility? The Abbott article suggests reducing stress, maintaining good health, exercising, reading, and playing games, among other things.

And yes, all of those goals may be easier to achieve with a flexible work schedule.

These factors combined help make the case that work flexibility can boost employees’ brain power, improving creativity and problem-solving. Flex also tends to create happier, healthier employees, and that’s good for the brain, too.

What correlation have you seen between work flexibility and innovation? What other brain benefits of flex would you add to this list? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

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