A quick little post today on my routine that I go through when I'm stuck. Let's say that I'm programming and I'm hitting a wall, maybe I'm getting frustrated that I can't figure something out, and I feel like I'm spinning my wheels. Despite being a supreme genius of the universe, this happens to me all the time. Now I have a little routine that I go through systematically, and eighty percent of the time or so it gets me moving again.
The first thing I do is I clean up my desk. I hate to admit that I'm influenced by such trivial things as desk clutter, but a nice empty clean desk has a real calming effect on the mind. Sometimes I even wipe it down with soap and water so that it's really clean. This sounds a little bit crazy, but I've noticed a consistent improvement in motivation when I do it. I also clean anything in front of me. In the RV, that's the two front seats and whatever's on the kitchen counter beside me.
Next I drink about sixteen ounces of water, even if I'm not thirsty. Left to my own devices, I drink very little water unless I'm at a restaurant, so I use frustration as a cue that I might need more water. Sometimes I have tea cold-brewing in the fridge, and I might drink that instead. Being even moderately dehydrated brings on feeling of fatigue, which can be confused with (or a part of) not being able to concentrate. Drinking water doesn't always have an effect, but sometimes it wakes me right up.
After cleaning and drinking some water, I play my violin. You can substitute anything left-brained here, like sketching or playing piano. I have theories about why this helps-- maybe it spins up the left brain and starts using it to tackle the problem at hand, maybe it gives the right brain a break to recharge its chemicals, or maybe it's all placebo. Regardless, I find that a good portion of the time after I play some music, I'll think of a totally different solution to the problem that I hadn't even considered before.
The last step I take before getting back to work is turning off my monitor and spending just a minute or two thinking about the problem. When the computer is on, I have a tendency to just start mashing at the keys trying to solve the problem, but if it's off for even a couple minutes that gives my brain a chance to wrap itself around the problem.
This may sound like an unnecessarily complex ritual to go through, but it actually only takes 5-10 minutes, which is a nice little break to take every few hours anyway. You may be able to find a better process for yourself (leave it in the comments), but if you don't have one, try this is as starting point next time you find yourself at an impasse.
Japan meetup is TODAY (Saturday Japan time). Looks like it's going to rain, so we'll probably be meeting up at the cafe. Link is here: http://tynan.com/community/tokyo-meetup
Photo was taken by Brian... we climbed up the wall of Osaka Castle.
Can confirm fact Tynan does not drink water. Did not pee once on 7 day trip across Japan
What you've done here is sort of self-discovered some of the prevailing theory about innovation and problem solving.
When I was in grad school, I studied creativity and innovation, and one of the findings was that temporal and geographical displacement actually assist with creative problem solving / innovation. That is, when faced with a problem, removing yourself from it and NOT thinking about it actually allows your subconscious to sort of work on a solution in the background. It's the reason why so many of us have big "ah hahs" when sleeping or in the shower.
Geographical change is also good. Get yourself away from the computer and out of the RV. Everyday, I spend an hour in the late afternoon lying in the grass and reading in Balboa Park in San Diego just to escape whatever I'm working on. Later in the day, I'll mix in some music time similar to your violin time. It's the things OTHER than work that actually make your work more efficient!
I'll give Eric the credit for the photo. It came off my camera but that's me on the wall so I'd be surprised if I took it.
worth a read
'We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.'
Nice jumpstart routine. Here's a few things from mine:
I do pick up my area, but not so much to clear clutter as to occupy my hands so my mind can wander. I also take a notepad and pen with me when I go to mow the grass. The monotony and repetition make for good idea generation time. And as Arun suggested, a shower works well too. Waterproof paper and pencil help there!
Sometimes it helps me to refocus on the goal. If I deliberately write out what I want the end goal to be, then it can sometimes bump me out of thinking that I *need* to make a particular solution work, and I find an easier route to the goal.
Another is listing out 20 *bad* solutions to the problem. If I make myself come up with a bunch of terrible solutions, then often some combination of those solutions, or some variation of those solutions will be a good one, and not necessarily something I would have come up with otherwise. It frees me to consider things that I would normally scoff at (non-optimal solutions). And often I don't even make it to 20 before I find a good reason to stop the process and start implementing the new solution.
Lastly, I bring to mind what it has felt like in the past to be working on a programming problem that I didn't know the answer to, and then later solved. I remind myself that I will have this problem solved in a few hours, so basically, it's already solved. It's a little bit of a mind trick, but all I can say is that I haven't failed to solve the problem up to this point when I use this method. A similar method is to tell yourself that the solution already exists, and that you know it, but you have just forgotten. So instead of having to think up the solution, you just tell yourself you need to remember what it is. It's odd, but again it seems to work.
My wife and I will be in Kyushu from Tuesday through May 14th. If you are near Fukuoka at some point and would like to meet up let me know. I very much enjoy reading your blog and books and we are actually buying an RV on our return to California after this trip!
Take care and have a great trip.
That's a great process for sure Tynan. Turning off the computer is absolutely step one for me. I like getting outside and closer to nature which stimulates the right brain. Listening (really listening) to a few Pink Floyd tracks with headphones really helps... especially for those of us who don't play an instrument. And meditation clears my head too. To me, meditation is simply quiet time without trying to control anything or solve any problems. Love your blog.
When I bought a house ten years ago, I also bought place settings for six and silverware for twelve. Then I developed a minor fascination with bone China and bought settings for eight. I probably had four dozen glasses. About once a month or so, all of these dishes would be piled up in and around my sink, begging to be cleaned. I didn't have a lot of dinner parties-- I just hated doing dishes so much that I'd procrastinate until washing became a full day event. Those days were some of my least favorite.
A few days ago, I was doing the dishes for the six of us that ate dinner. There were pots, pans, plates, serving utensils, and glasses. The works. For the first time ever, I found myself enjoying doing the dishes. I could appreciate the warm water on my hands and the shine in the pot when it was clean. When I washed everything that wasn't dishwasher safe, I started handwashing the things that could have just gone in the dishwasher. It wasn't fun exactly, but it was so enjoyable that I actually found myself looking forward to washing the dishes the next day.
Work has become the same way. I don't love all aspects of it equally, but when I wake up and know I have a tough day ahead of me, I feel great. Pant of it is that I know the day will end with a nice chunk of progress made, but most of it is the actual act of working. I love it. I can't wait to face off with a bug that's been bothering me for weeks, trace it through all of our code, and fix it. It's relaxing, like an internal Swedish massage.
My friend Constance wrote me an email today. She was talking about me with her sister and some friends, describing my hyperfocus on work, learning, and other productive things. An excerpt from her email:
Sebastian, what's with you and leather boots? Do you have a fetish for them or something?