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Margaret Heffernan on Problem Solving

How many times have you pushed and pushed to move a project forward to only end up frustrated? Many years ago, my older brother called home from college stressed. He had just gotten back to his dorm exhausted after wrestling practice, but still had a paper to finish and an exam to study for. In all my little sister wisdom, I told him to "take a nap."

This one simple statement has grown into a family legend and my brothers still use it to support a myth about my lack of work ethic. But to me it represents an early intuition and self-awareness about mindset and well-being. For my brother in his state of stress, the idea of taking a nap made no sense because all of the work would still be there when he woke up and he would then have less time to do it. On the other hand, I could hear the stress in his voice and knew that the quality of his work and focus would be seriously compromised. If he got rest and replenished his mind and body, he could do higher quality work and make better connections in less time.

This image of a stormy sky captures both the dark clouds of frustration that form when pushing up against a problem as well as the bright insight that can occur when we take our focus off the problem. I also see a loose outline of a brain in the clouds paying homage to the brain research that has occurred in the years since this phone conversation proving that my "take a nap" approach works.

Whether a power-nap, walk, quick chat with a colleague, or juggling break, taking our focus off the problem allows other parts of our brain to fire up and make connections. I can't tell you how many new insights I've had during my evening runs as my mind processes the day in the background.

What activity helps you take your mind off a problem and has led to insights?

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