How to Create Space for Problem Solving
As a child, one of my favorite records was Bert and Ernie’s Sing-a-Long. It starts with Bert peacefully taking a bath when Ernie, who wants to hold a sing-a-long in the bathroom, forces his way in (with a piano) because of the better acoustics. The effort proceeds where eventually the entire Sesame Street gang is in the bathroom singing. At that young age, I was not exactly sure why Bert was upset with Ernie or the gang. Of course, the acoustics are better in the bathroom. However, as I have grown, I find myself siding with Bert on this matter.
It’s perhaps a cliché that many people say that their best ideas come to them in the shower. However, like Bert, many of us lack the down time to relax and “turn-off” our brain. After all, the shower may be one of the last bastions for self reflection; a place where we can put down the cell phones, computers and any other distractions and allow our brains to do something it does well.
This is what I call “offline processing.” There is a lot of research available that promotes the idea that when the brain is not distracted it has more available “RAM” to allocate towards solving complex problems. Since I am not a neuroscientist, I am going to take this at face value and focus this discussion more on how we as individuals can create the space necessary to solve your most complex questions and avoid sing-a-longs during your bath time.
So how do you create space for problem solving? The short answer is that it varies by individual. However, I believe there is a recipe anyone can follow to find the space they need to avoid the incessant chatter and have some creative space to solve complex problems:
Rule #1 – Set Aside at Least 15 Minutes
While spending more than 15 minutes could yield higher returns on your problem-solving capabilities, I think 15 minutes is a minimum in order to get away. I have found in my own life that 15 minutes is not quite enough for me. I feel 30-45 minutes is a nice sweet spot where you can get away without compromising all your other daily tasks.
Rule #2 – Find a Place to Change Your Environment
In a day and age where time becomes such a limiting factor, we place too much focus on getting enough “down time.” I would argue that where you spend those 15 minutes is just as important as the 15 minutes themselves. Putting yourself somewhere that can stimulate you is important. In the shower, this can be the texture and temperature of the water on your skin or if you choose to take a walk perhaps, it is the different colors of the trees or sky. Rather than being too hung up on what is the perfect place, try and find a place to get away and stimulate your many senses.
Rule #3 – Get Your Blood Flowing
Like all components of your body, the brain works because blood is feeding it oxygen and nutrients. As an overly active person, I sometimes over estimate how much exertion is needed to get blood flowing. In most cases, deep meditative breathing can get the blood flowing enough. I would say that for most people, a brisk walk, a light bike ride or some yoga stretching gets you into the right balance of blood flow without feeling over-exerted.
Rule #4 – Do it Daily
It takes practice to make this whole recipe a successful endeavor. Following the above rules routinely will make that time you spend away more productive. We all have constant distractions but setting aside productive problem-solving time should be one of your highest priorities. Making a commitment to follow a daily problem-solving routine will yield results.
Problem Solving – Putting it All Together
The world is becoming more multi-dimensional. Most problems facing our planet and our societies require more spatial and non-linear problem solving. I like to think of people’s time as a limited resource of which the bi-product is ideas. If squandered, people form superficial ideas that do not deliver the needed affects to drive us in the right directions. In taking a step back and creating some space, we will create an opportunity to better leverage our collective intellects in order to meet the dynamics of our changing world.
Garrett Dunwoody is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.