Have you ever noticed that you have a clearer perspective on things after a good night’s sleep? Or that you have more clarity and insight into issues at work after you’ve returned from a two week holiday?
Well, it’s no coincidence.
Cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios studies what goes on in our brains when we experience a moment of insight. He put it nicely: ‘Almost everyone has creative insights from time to time. But it is possible to cultivate these moments, too. People tend to have more creative insights when they are in a happy, relaxed mood.’
One way to solve a problem is to focus on the issue and use analytical thinking to come up with an answer. This can of course be very productive.
But what about those times when the answer just won’t come, no matter how hard we try?
This is when we need an Aha! moment, that flash of inspiration when a novel solution pops into our heads.
It turns out that these moments rarely arise through applying our conscious minds to the problem. They are much more likely to happen when we are out for a walk, or washing our hair or weeding the garden. When we are relaxed and not consciously thinking about the issue.
So, here are my top 3 tips for solving a difficult problem:
1. Build some downtime into your day.
There is a tendency in our culture to value hard work, even to glorify overwork. I see it in clients who are on the go from 6am to 10pm. They have no downtime.
If your brain is continually focused on the task at hand you are not accessing the background neural network that allows us to daydream and gain perspective. It can even impact on your ability to form memories.
When I was in my late twenties/early thirties I had a stupid work regime. I had a full-time job in IT and a parallel full-time commitment running a local charity. During this time I went on a narrow boat holiday with some friends and family. I have no recollection of that holiday. It’s only that there is photographic evidence that I know I was there at all.
For sure I was working hard, but there is no way that I could be in the slightest bit creative or come up with novel solutions.
Aha! moments don’t come from grinding work schedules, so cut yourself some slack and build some downtime into your life.
2. Get a good night’s sleep
Life is so much better when we get a good night’s sleep. If we sleep for 7 to 8 hours we go through several periods of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
REM sleep is really important for processing the events of the day and clearing your mind so you wake up with a clearer perspective. It’s when we have those really bizarre dreams when people and events from our past crop up in weird circumstances. They make no sense and are illogical when we think about them with our conscious minds.
But these illogical connections can serve a very useful purpose.
It seems that REM sleep helps us to make leaps of understanding that we couldn’t achieve with analytical cause-and-effect thinking. That mishmash of random thoughts can lead to incredible insights and there are plenty of examples of important scientific breakthroughs arising from dreams.
So, make sleep a priority. It is so important for our mental well-being.
3. Stop thinking about the problem
It sounds counter intuitive, but if you keep thinking about what’s wrong, how can you hope to find a solution?
It’s far better to take your mind off the problem and do something completely different. Your subconscious mind will continue to search for solutions, but you need to give it some space to be creative.
I remember years ago being in the garden with some friends and we were playing a ‘lateral thinking’ game. Each one of us read out a question from a pack of cards and the rest of us had to try and solve the riddle. You know the sort of thing: a horse is tied to a 5 foot long piece of rope, there is a pile of hay 8 feet away, how can the horse eat the hay? Jonathan Creek would solve it right away ,of course.
I’m not generally good at these things and, feeling a bit miffed at the thought of being shown up, I busied myself weeding the nearby border.
Weirdly, and for the first time in my life, I came up with correct answers to several of the conundrums.
Why? Because I wasn’t thinking about the problem that had been set. That allowed space for the Aha! moment to pop into my head.
So, if you’re struggling with a problem, distract yourself by doing something completely different.