Easy Peasy Problem Solving

Child sitting on the top of heap of carton packed boxes.Ever have one of those frustrating moments when you can’t figure out a solution to a problem – then you take a break, come back, and find the answer easily?

I’ll be the first to admit that I am technically challenged. I can easily transform a chaotic space into a calm oasis, but when it comes to converting a digital file to a compatible format (or something like that) I’m pulling my hair out. I tried to do this the other day, and I just couldn’t figure it out. I tried Googling it, I downloaded various apps and software, and even asked my kids – to no avail. I struggled with it late into the night when I finally decided to get some sleep and tackle it in the morning.

When I woke up, the answer just seemed to pop into my head. It’s like the cyber gods took pity on me and downloaded the solution into my subconscious mind while I slept.

Taking a mental break, whether it’s leaving it till the next morning or changing activities when you ‘hit a wall’ during the day, is one of the best ways I’ve discovered to problem-solve. It’s simply impossible to find a solution when your brain is exhausted from intensively trying to think of a solution. Something as simple as making a pot of tea, listening to music, or going for a walk can shift your mental state.

It seems the masterminds at development companies like Google and Microsoft have already figured this out. They’ve equipped the workplace with video games, sport courts and toys to help employees get their conscious minds off problems and let their subconscious take over. This is a case where distraction can be a good thing.

Maybe you, like me, have grown up hearing that you’re not allowed to play or relax until all your work is done. This belief is not only unrealistic (is all your work ever done?) it also gets in the way of creative problem solving. Of course it’s important to work hard, especially when you have a deadline, but taking a break from working on a problem is also very valuable.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

Don’t just take my word for it. Some of the greatest thinkers took time to relax and play – and look what it did for them. It’s no secret that Einstein was a daydreamer, choosing to spend much of his time sailing on a lake. Ralph Waldo Emerson was often found fishing.

So the next time you are stumped and your brain hurts from trying to figure things out, stop trying so hard. Take an ‘incubation break’ and relax; trust that a solution will come – and I bet it will.

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This post has 2 comments

  • Wendy says:

    I really noticed this happening back when I was in college and taking a computer programming class. I would work for hours on a program and could not find the bug in it. I would go to bed and in the morning, while taking a shower, the answer would absolutely just pop into my head and I could fix it within minutes. This happened more than one time!

  • Adele Chatelain says:

    It’s certainly true, also in the creative arts. I’m a painter (of pictures); I find when I get bogged down with a visual composition, it’s time for me to take a long break. When I was at the Art Academy, they taught us that when we got frustrated with a painting to ‘turn the painting against the wall’ so that we could only see the back of it. You’re giving your eyes a break when you do this, they told us. Sometimes I think I hate the painting I’m working on and will force myself to turn it away from me for weeks….when I come back to it I’m actually impressed with the work the way I left it!