The dogged pursuit of creative solutions can actually backfire. Here’s how to hit the reset button and cultivate breakthrough thinking.
A funny thing happens when you’re stuck on a problem. The more time you spend thinking about it, the more narrow your possible solutions become.
There is a diminishing return when you try too hard. You get too close to a problem and try to barrel through it, which makes it more difficult to get around it or over it.
So what should you do?
In a recent HBR Blog post, Ron Friedman recommends gaining psychological distance. Friedman is the founder of ignite80, a consulting firm that helps leaders build thriving organizations, and the author of the forthcoming book, “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.”
By temporarily directing your attention away from a problem, you loosen your mental grip and allow other creative connections to appear.
Here are Friedman’s tips for getting your brain unstuck:
1. Struggling for more than 15 minutes? Switch tasks. A well-timed distraction can be a boon to creativity. When we let go of a problem, our perspective expands. This explains why we discover so many solutions in odd places, like the shower, the commute back home, or the visit to the gym. Redirecting our attention to an unrelated task also provides room for incubation, a term psychologists use to describe nonconscious thinking. Studies show that following a brief distraction, people generate more creative solutions to a problem than those who spend the same period of time focusing on it intently.
2. For tasks requiring creative thinking, schedule multiple sessions over several days. Often, the most productive way of resolving a difficult problem is to alternate between thinking about it very deeply and then strategically shifting your attention elsewhere. Instead of setting aside one continuous block of time to work on a creative project, schedule shorter, more frequent sessions.
3. Put mind-wandering periods to good use. Creative solutions rarely emerge when we’re in the office. Which is why it can be helpful to keep an ongoing list of “thinking problems” that you can access on the go. Glance at your list just before entering mind-wandering periods, like when you’re going out for a sandwich or traveling between meetings. A new context can lead to a fresh perspective.
Ultimately, the key to harnessing the power of psychological distance involves accepting that often, the best ideas don’t appear when we’re pushing ourselves to work harder. They prefer sneaking up on us, the moment we look away.
Have a great week.
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