The tips of all my pens are all chewed up. When I’m nervous, I take my ring off and put it back on, repeatedly. I twirl my hair and crack my knuckles and play with my necklace and slip my shoes off and on under my desk. In short, I fidget.
Maybe these habits are annoying to my coworkers, but it’s probably better for my productivity than if I just sat quietly and stared at my screen. Research seems to be increasingly showing that a focused person is not necessarily one who is sitting still at a desk for a solid eight hours a day.
There are plenty of articles offering suggestions on how to outsmart the ingrained drudgery of office life, by taking breaks or moving around. Eventually, though, no matter how many intermissions are built into the day, everyone will eventually have to get around to actually doing work.
And that’s when it can help to have something for people to occupy their hands with. For example, people have been shown to remember information better when they took notes by hand than when they typed them up on a keyboard. One oft-cited study found that doodling also seems to boost memory; its author hypothesized that doodling might help keep people from daydreaming during a boring task.
It’s possible that stress toys could, in a similar way, keep people’s minds from wandering. A pair of researchers at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University have begun looking into what they call “fidget widgets”—objects that people play with while thinking about something else. The researchers have set up a Tumblr where people can submit their own fidget widgets—and pictures of everything from standard stress balls to Silly Putty to paperclips have come in.