The Simple But Effective Way to Solve Problems Better
Wrestling with a tough choice? This simple strategy will give you clarity.
Posted Mar 13, 2018
When you're wrestling with a tough decision or you're trying to solve a hard problem, you might assume you just need to think harder. But concentrating harder won't force a 'eureka moment' when you're experiencing a mental block.
Instead, your best option might be to step away from your project and busy yourself with another task. Clean the house, pay some bills, or take a nap and you just might experience a spark of genius as the solution seems to magically come to you.
The Incubation Period
For more than 100 years, scientists have studied the "incubation period." Studies have found that the best ideas often come to people when they aren't actively trying to develop a solution.
Instead, individuals often experience a spark of genius or eureka moment when they're busying themselves with a task unrelated to the issue they're trying to address.
What the Research Shows
In a 2010 study (link is external) published in Psychological Science, researchers examined how an incubation period affects choices. In the first experiment, participants were asked to evaluate profiles of potential roommates given to them by the researchers.
One group was asked for their decision immediately following their evaluation. The other group was asked to complete an anagram before weighing in.
The participants who were asked to complete an unrelated task—and wait several minutes before making a decision—made better choices.
In a second experiment, participants were asked to evaluate potential job candidates. The results were the same. Those who had a brief incubation period before making the decision made wiser choices.
Other studies have yielded similar results—taking time to not think about a problem can lead to the best decisions.
Why It Works
Your unconscious mind is surprisingly astute—that's a fact researchers agree on. But, they agree on why an incubation period leads to a spark of genius.
Three main theories explain why an incubation period can lead to new insight:
Eliciting new knowledge. When you stop thinking about something, your brain continues working on the problem in the background--which means it will come across relevant memories in your brain that you may have ignored when you were actively trying to think about the problem. Armed with that new information, your brain may be able to develop a better idea.
Selective forgetting. An incubation period weakens the unhelpful solutions that are distracting you. Taking a break gives you a fresh perspective and you'll find a new approach.
Problem restructuring. Stepping away from the problem (literally and figuratively) gives your brain an opportunity to reorganize the problem. When you see the problem differently, a solution will be more obvious.
How to Make the Incubation Period Work for You
Regardless of why it works, the question is how are you going to make it work for you?
Well, the next time you're struggling with a problem—whether you can't get past the first chapter in that book you're writing or you can't decide whether to accept that new job you were offered--take a break from thinking too hard.
Studies vary on how long your incubation period should be. But some of them say an incubation period as short as 10 minutes might be enough to help your brain gain a new perspective. But you might want to experiment to discover what works for you.
The next time you're tempted to talk through all your options with your partner for the fifth time, go do something else. A flash of inspiration may come to you while you're weeding the garden or cleaning the closets.
Or, when you're tempted to stay up late and work through a problem, you might be better sleeping on it. Your brain might solve the problem for you while you're fast asleep.
4 Evidence-Based Ways to Push Past a Creative Block Jump-start your creativity with these strategies based on recent research.
Posted May 03, 2018
Sometimes the creative ideas flow freely—and sometimes they barely trickle. What makes the latter experience so frustrating is the knowledge that you’re quite capable of being creative. You’ve come up with inventive ideas and innovative solutions before. But right here, right now, you can’t seem to turn on the idea spigot. Fortunately, psychological science can help. Below are four strategies based on recent research that may get your creative juices flowing again.
Strategy 1. Think in terms of opposites
Opposites attract creativity, when they prompt you to use what’s known as Janusian thinking. Named for the Roman god ####—who is depicted as having two faces looking in opposite directions—this type of thinking involves pondering two opposite concepts at once. In new research, Chen-Yao Kao of the University of Tainan in Taiwan explored the benefits of taking a Janusian approach. Volunteers completed sentences including two adjectives that were opposites, almost opposites, or not opposites. For example, in the opposites condition, they might complete this sentence: “___ is optimistic and pessimistic because ___." The more opposite the adjectives were, the more ideas people generated.
Suggestion: Frame a problem as a paradox. Then ask yourself how it can be both apples and oranges. This forces you to look at the problem from two opposing perspectives, which may lead to a broader range of ideas.
Strategy 2. Set constraints for yourself
Speaking of paradoxes, here’s a good one: Setting boundaries for your mind can sometimes free your creativity. Catrinel Haught-Tromp, a psychology professor at Rider University in New Jersey, calls this the Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis. She’s referring to the beloved children’s classic, which was penned by Dr. Seuss after an editor challenged him to write a children’s book using no more than 50 different words.
In research by Haught-Tromp, volunteers were asked to write creative two-line rhymes that conveyed common greeting card messages (for example, happy birthday). In some cases, there were no limits on their word choice. But in other cases, they were asked to include a specific noun that wasn't obviously related to the message. Imposing this requirement led to more creative output.
Suggestion: When you’re feeling overwhelmed by boundless possibilities, narrow down your options by establishing some parameters. For example, you might limit the tools you can use or topics you can explore. With fewer options, you can explore the remaining ones more deeply, and that promotes creativity.
Strategy 3. Turn on some happy tunes
To study how music affects creative thinking, researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands divided 155 volunteers into five groups: happy music, calm music, sad music, anxious music, or silence (the control condition). The musical selections—all classical pieces—had previously been shown to convey their respective moods. “Happy” music, for example, was represented by an upbeat, energizing piece.
Once the music or silence commenced, the volunteers began working on tasks designed to test different types of thinking. Those listening to happy music outperformed the control group on tasks that called for divergent thinking—in other words, original ideas and fresh perspectives.
Suggestion: Wake up your creativity with happy, rousing music. Remember: The idea is to free your mind to be creative—not focus it on lip syncing—so you might want to choose music with no vocals for this purpose.
Strategy 4. Sleep enough, consistently
Some days, 17 waking hours don’t seem to be enough. If you’re like many people, you skimp on sleep for a few days and play catch up after that. But then something else comes up, you lose sleep again, and the pattern keeps repeating.
To study this pattern, Baylor University researchers looked at the sleep habits of 28 interior design students. Many cycled between late nights working on school projects and catch-up nights when they slept 10 hours or more. Such erratic sleep schedules were an accepted part of the student culture, but they may have had unintended consequences: The more variable the students’ sleep, the more their creativity declined over time.
Suggestion: Adults need at least seven hours of sleep nightly, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. For optimal mental functioning, simply averaging seven hours isn’t enough. Ideally, you should try to get that amount every night. Being creative on demand isn’t easy—and sometimes it feels nearly impossible. When you’re creatively dammed up, these evidence-based strategies may help you get unblocked.