Have you ever lost your keys, looked for them in earnest, and couldn’t find them, only to find them later when you weren’t looking for them? Somehow, as soon as you stop looking for them, your brain started piecing together the clues and put them together without you working on it.
It turns out that the creative process can sometimes be like this, too. If you’re stuck on a problem and can’t find the answer, one of the best things you can do is to “look away” for a while. But to look away, you have to really look away, meaning you have to divert enough of your attention to something else while you’re looking away.
But…before you look away, state the problem to yourself as specifically as possible. For instance, don’t say “I’m having trouble writing this blog post” – drill down to where you’re having the trouble. Is it the introduction? Is it piecing together a couple of the ideas? Is it expressing an idea in the context of the post? The problem with the general creative puzzle is that it’s too big to piece together, but if you focus on just one component of it, then some headway can be made on it.
What many of us don’t realize about the creative puzzles we run into is that, very often, there are multiple components to the puzzle. The first component is what I’ll call the cognitive component; this component has to do with just the aspects of the problem that can be solved purely by thinking about the problem. The second component of the problem is the emotional component; this component often doesn’t have to do with the problem itself, but is often what keeps us from being able to see the solution to the problem.
Think about this for a second. How often have you gotten stuck on something and then tried to force yourself to find the answer? Or how many times have you let what’s a momentary mental pause turn into layers of insecurity, self-doubt, frustration, anger, impatience, or depression? At that point, very little of your mental energy is being directed at the actual problem and instead is diverted to the emotional tempest you’re brewing.
The trick here is in knowing yourself well enough to know when it’s just a mental hiccup, in which case you just need to refocus, and when it’s time to step away from the problem before you get overwhelmed by it. In the latter case, the worst thing you can do is try to force yourself to find the answer.
Instead, look away from the problem by exercising, walking around, going to a store, or talking to someone about it. The first three work because physical movement tends to encourage thinking, and the latter works because you’re probably not articulating as much of the negative emotional energy and more of the actual problem when you talk to someone else. The activities themselves, though, have to be immersive enough that the problem itself isn’t what you’re focusing on. It may seem odd, then, that I’m recommending talking to someone about the problem, but rich conversations often require enough concentration that the maintenance of the conversation is what has more of your focus than the content of the conversation.
It’s good practice to have your “looking away” activities identified so that the process becomes more reflexive. For instance, I know that playing my guitar is a sure way to look away from my problem, as are the drums on Rock Band. (Oh, Rock Band, is there a problem you can’t handle?) I can also hit the gym downstairs. You get bonus points if your looking away activities are ones that are good for you anyway.
If you’ve been racking your brain trying to solve that creative problem for the last few hours, or days, or weeks and aren’t making much headway, stop! Try some of the things I’ve mentioned above, and if they don’t work, pick up another project for a while. But, whatever you do, look way from the problem so that you have the chance to solve it.