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How to solve complex problems (by not focusing on them)

The Zeigarnik effect can do something stunning when we scatter our attention and let our mind wander.

How to solve complex problems (by not focusing on them)
[Photo: Edgar Chaparro/Unsplash]

Simple decisions are best made using cold, hard logic. This way, we can work through the incremental steps that lead to an answer. But the same isn’t true for complex decisions, ones that require more creativity in meshing together a web of interconnected ideas. These decisions can be impossible to work through with logic and reason alone. That’s why we need to tap into the proven power of our subconscious mind.

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We’re wired to remember what we’re in the middle of more than what we’ve completed, a phenomenon known in psychology circles as the Zeigarnik effect, named after Bluma Zeigarnik, the first person to study this concept. As a result, uncompleted tasks and decisions weigh more heavily on our minds than ones we’ve finished—focus comes when we close these distracting open loops. While annoying during attempts to focus, the Zeigarnik effect can do something stunning when we scatter our attention and let our mind wander.

Chances are you’ve experienced a few eureka moments. Maybe they struck while you were taking a shower, getting the mail, or walking through an art gallery. Your brain suddenly found the solution to a problem you hadn’t thought about in a few hours. In that instant, the puzzle pieces satisfyingly slid together and locked into place.

Two things were likely true in that moment: First, your insight was a response to a problem you’d been stuck on. Second, your mind was likely wandering while you did something that didn’t require your full attention. I call this mode of mind wandering “scatterfocus.”

Thanks to the Zeigarnik effect, we store any problems currently stumping us at the front of our minds. As a consequence, we connect each new experience to these unresolved problems, desperate to unearth novel solutions.

When doing something mindless and habitual, potential insight triggers come from two places: our wandering minds and the external environment.

Here’s an example.

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Let’s say I invite you to my secret productivity-experiment lair. I offer you a seat, set a timer for 30 minutes, and ask you to solve this seemingly simple problem: The number 8,549,176,320 is the most unique 10-digit number. What makes it different? Let’s imagine you can’t solve the problem in the allotted time—not unreasonable, given that this is a tricky test. The question continues to weigh on your mind after you’ve left.

By now you’ve reached an impasse and have encoded the problem to memory. You see those digits whenever you close your eyes. (Naturally, the better you remember a complex problem, the greater your odds of coming up with a creative solution.)

Thanks partly to the Zeigarnik effect, your mind will automatically connect new experiences to this problem. You return to work with the number imprinted on your brain. You find your mind returning to it periodically, sometimes even against your will. In fact, odds are your mind will wander more often than usual—our thoughts drift more when we’re chewing on a complex problem—which causes you to make a higher-than-normal number of mistakes in your work.

Later in the day, you’re doing an activity that takes you into habitual scatterfocus mode: alphabetizing your bookshelf. You’re putting away the book The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch. Your mind processes where the book will be shelved.

Okay, ignore the word “the.”

First value is 8, so I’ll put it with the other books that start with a number.

Huh, the first number in Chris’ experiment was also an 8.

The solution hits you like a lightning bolt.

8,549,176,320.

Eight, five, four, nine . . .

A, B, C, D, Eight, Five, Four, G, H . . .

The number has every digit arranged in alphabetical order!

This is a straightforward example of an insight trigger—usually they are more subtle, nudging your mind to think in a different direction to restructure the mental dots that represent a problem. I designed this example to illustrate a simple concept: A wandering mind connects the problems we’re tackling with what we experience and where our minds wander.

Look back at some of the greatest eureka moments in history. In addition to reaching an impasse with their problems, some famous thinkers arrived at solutions to them after being spurred by an external cue. Archimedes figured out how to calculate the volume of an irregular object when he noticed his bathwater overflowing. Newton came up with his theory of gravity when he saw an apple fall from a tree—probably the best-known insight trigger in history. For his habitual scatterfocus routine, renowned physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman would sip 7UP at a topless bar, where he could “‘watch the entertainment’,” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.”

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Our minds also wander to some fascinating places by themselves. One study found our mind wanders to think about the past 12% of the time, the present 28% of the time, and the future 48% of the time. Connecting all three of these mental destinations helps us piece together ideas and solutions to problems we’re incubating.

Insight triggers are remarkable. You may see a bird picking at a chip packet, which leads you to realize you should throw out the chips you’ve been snacking on so you can lose those final 10 pounds. Intentionally daydreaming while making breakfast, you recall how you resolved a past work dispute and realize you can use the same technique today. The more we purposefully let our mind wander and the richer our environment, the more insights we unearth.

Think about the moments when your most creative ideas struck. Wherever you were, you likely weren’t focused on them. If you’re stuck on a creative problem right now, don’t actively try to work through it. Get up, let your mind wander, and take a look around instead.


This essay was adapted from Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Chris Bailey.

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