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.
One day last week I drank too much tea too late in the day. Instead of going to bed at my normal 1:30-2am time, I went to bed after 3am. The next morning I woke up around eleven, feeling a bit slothful for sleeping in. Usually I make some nice green tea in the morning, but I skipped it that day, half because I had overdosed on tea the day before, and half because it was almost the afternoon. I sat down at my computer, but instead of doing my daily planning, I started researching Persian rugs.
By one in the afternoon I was still sitting at my computer in my skivvies, having done nothing more substantial than gain a comprehensive amateur understanding of what to look for in a Persian rug, and maybe answering a handful of medium-priority emails.
The day was off to a bad start. Not a horrific start, like the kind where you lose your arm in a grain combine, but the kind where you've gotten such a slow start that the day begins to feel like a waste.
I opened up Google Calendar to plan my day, but then closed it. What's the point, I thought, when I've already wasted so much time? There was no chance it was going to be an excellent day, so my brain was trying to steer me towards just writing the day off and refocusing on the next one.
March 10, 2010. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Late morning.
I pulled on my swim trunks, trainers, and a tank top and walked out of my little guesthouse room, sliding through the cramped restaurant strewn with tables, and out into the hot, dusty air of Phnom Penh. It's a hot day. It'll be good to swim after lifting weights.
I said, "No no, thank you" to the tuk-tuk drivers offering to take me somewhere in the city, pushed through the little crowd, and out onto the street. The streets in Cambodia more resemble alleyways than streets, and I navigate around people and vehicles.
I went down to the end of the street, turned left, and skirted along close to the local restaurants, half-tent half-storefront type places to get food. I stepped into the crosswalk, the Hotel Cambodiana rising in front of me. I check right and then left, and I watch left as I cross, watching for oncoming traffic.
A loud scream rings out. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.