When You Are Stuck

09 Nov 2012

All too often we find ourselves trying to solve a problem for hours. You may have googled your problem, spoken to people, tried this and that. But nothing really worked. Sometimes you try the same solution twice or three times in a row, secretly hoping that it will work. This can feel like running in circles. And god forbid somebody asks you "How long do you reckon it's going to take?", since you immediately feel like going for their throat. The worst bit is that you may feel really exhausted and not motivated at all to do anything at this point.

If any of this sounds familiar - you are not alone. I repeatedly found myself in those dead-end situation throughout a number of years. Thinking of all the time I wasted chasing problems and hitting same walls over and over again just makes me want to smack myself. There are patterns in ways we think about problems. And guess what - there are both productive and non-productive patterns.

I'd like to share some of my experiences. I hope this will help you to save some time and sanity. Moreover I'd like this post to prompt you to think about the state of self-awareness and honesty. Honesty to yourself. I truly believe that sense of being an observer of your own actions, emotions, desires and thoughts is crucial for practical self-improvement. Not a self-improvement in some vague new-agey way. But the real, practical self-improvement that results in increased productivity and creativity.

Stop working on this immediately.

I deliberately don't say that you should "take a break". "Breaks" imply getting back to solving a problem at some point. This way the context stays the same and people are quite likely to keep grinding over the problem while on the break. This is exactly one of the anti-patterns that we want to avoid.

It is important to understand that I am not asking you to drop the problem altogether. I do ask that you disengage completely though. No more thinking about it. No more trying to predict where the root cause is or what a solution may look like.

Doing this can be really hard. Especially if you are as broken as I am and often postpone trips to a toilet almost until the moment of busting. We tend to get stuck in problems. We get too immersed sometimes. We say: "I spent so much time on this already! Solution must be really close! There's no way I'm dropping it now!". But it is the wrong line of thinking. And there are at least two good reasons why stopping is good.


Old road in Crib Point Our attention is somewhat depletable. When working for long on something, it gets easier to skip over details and make tiny, but detrimental mistakes. You may have noticed as work day is waning, you tend to overlook more things, make more typing mistakes and wanting to switch to reading news, Twitter or Facebook more often. You prefer small tasks to big ones, leaving them for "tomorrow". This is especially true if you work in long stretches of time.

Walking away from a problem and switching to a completely different sort of activity helps to restore our "attention stamina".

To restore it, drop what you working on right away. Go for a walk. Leave your office, study room, library or whatever place you happened to be at. And go for a walk. Look at the skies and the trees. Try to breathe slowly. If you have a park nearby, go there. A river bank? That will do too. Ideally your walk should include some sort of nature elements. Specifically avoid busy roads with people, traffic and shops. Those are not going to help.

A study suggests that people who sat through a tedious attention test and then took a walk in a quiet park, performed much better on subsequent test than those who walked along busy roads.

But be prepared - breaking away may be hard. You may get a sort of mild panic attack, urging you to go back to work. Thoughts like those may cross your mind: "What if my boss shows up and I am not around? I'd better be sitting there, pretending that I'm doing some work! Even if I don't get much done, at least they'll see me there!" Sure they will. But it won't help you to solve the problem and is likely to make you feel even worse.

Have you ever noticed how jumping first thing in the morning on a problem that seemed almost unsolvable yesterday results in a quick and elegant solution? Or just standing under the shower at home, not thinking about anything in particular suddenly leads to a surprising realisation or connection of two seemingly unrelated facts? Out of nowhere things just "click" together, leaving you with a nice answer or a promising lead.

That's the second reason - power of subconsciousness. It's often underestimated, sometimes repressed and rarely given enough credit. But if you try to remember where all good ideas you ever had came from - that'd be it. They just seem to suddenly pop up in your head out of nowhere.

Queenstown, NZ

It feels real cool and sometimes even mysterious. Trick is that you cannot directly control it in same way that you control your consciousness. There's no "thinking things through" with it. You cannot order it around. Forceful "Don't bring me the excuses, bring me the results!" won't work here.

But funny thing is that you don't have to control it. Wanting to solve a problem is a good start. Immersion into the context of the problem (which you experienced more than enough already) is also good. Now your subconsciousness just needs some time to sort through those things in a background. It needs to do some garbage collection. To find patterns. To notice nuances. And then it will let you know what the result is.

Sometimes it takes just a trip to kitchen or toilet. Or It can hit you on the way home. Sometimes - in the shower. Or in bed. Or first thing in the morning. Or just randomly, in a completely unrelated conversation. So stop working on this thing. Break away and go somewhere. And be ready for an answer or a clue. Wait for it, but don't rush it. And it will come.

It takes some time to learn what works best for you. For instance, walking around the office and engaging in random conversations helps me somewhat. Or looking into the distance for 5 to 10 minutes. Or grabbing a tea and a cookie from the kitchen. Funny thing though - toilet breaks are the total killer. Most of the insights came knocking when looking down the flushing urinal.


Admittedly it took me several years to notice those patterns. Maybe I am just plain stupid or wasn't paying enough attention. It is amazing how much interesting stuff you can notice by just watching yourself. All sorts of patterns in behaviour. Some of them are useful, others - not so much. But only by looking you can see those. Look, but don't judge, as you may not like what you see.

Greeks used to say: "Man, know thyself ... and thou shalt know the gods." Well, I am not too sure about gods, but saving few years of life and countless hours of frustration seems like a reasonable payoff to me.

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