This post stems from thoughts i had reading an article on linked in by Ilya Pozin called Why Distractions are Actually Good. The article discusses why distractions within your work-life can actually lead to increased problem solving and creativity.
It really drove home the lesson that i learned these tricks (as he discusses) back in University but had maybe dropped them from my conscious mind since then. Mostly i'm referring to the concept that if you let yourself be distracted from an important problem then your subconscious will continue to work on it in the background coming up with a solution when you least expect it.
I think that in our workplace world that we've been conditioned to work on an important problem in a dedicated fashion until you've reached a solution. I've watched far more than enough developers embroiled in thought, indicating any distraction would be disastrous to the process, to know that this is really a prevalent thought pattern. i'm not really saying that it's the wrong way to go, for some, but it doesn't really reflect the way things work for myself.
Back in university after Metallurgical Engineering and myself were done with each other i shifted into Philosophy. This move caused a monumentally different shift in the way i was going to have to approach my work and studies. In engineering every problem would take a certain amount of time to solve and you just had to work through it to get to the solution. Even extended problems that would include lab work were a series of interconnected steps or tests that would be plodded through methodically (by definition they have to be stepped through methodically) to achieve your end goals.
It's like night and day from what philosophy meant for me to do. In philosophy i was expected to read things and think about them. I was to grow my own concepts and investigate within themselves what they might mean. Assigned readings didn't just make the thoughts that you wanted to have happen happen, you might need thought percolation or even group discussion to bring them about.
I was relatively successful in Philosophy, like i never had been in Metallurgy and part of the reason was that i left my work alone. I achieved a methodology for dealing with papers. As you might imagine Philosophy was all about the papers. In general the way a paper would go is about a month or so before the assignment was due you'd be given a topic and some idea of the readings that would help you achieve direction for your topic. The further you advanced, the less direct the direction on what to read but the concept remained the same.
I started being a last minute guy, do the readings, write the paper, hand it in. I noticed that often this resulted in papers that weren't all that well conceptualized or thought-out, a definite success killer in Philosophy. As with most people, trying to trouble shoot the problem i decided that i needed to get on the work earlier so that i wasn't last-minute guy. Obviously i needed more prep time. And again, as with most people this worked the first time but follow through on such decisions is really difficult. I was lucky though as i failed in succeeding on this track i discovered something about myself, or i should say re-discovered.
If i really read the assignment right around when it was due and then within the next few days of that i did some of the readings (let's be reasonable, no one does all the readings do they?). As i did those readings i would think about the problem. When i got to the point where i wasn't going to read about it anymore, i just let it go. From that point something every week or so would remind me about the assignment. Most of the time a professor reminding us about the assignment or a classmate asking a question. other than pondering a little bit as these reminders occurred no active work would be done. As i tweaked my process i found that interim work was mostly wasted effort and time. Then, a day or two before the due date i'd be reminded again and suddenly i'd be driven by terror to commence working on the paper.
in the early days before i figured out the system i would pick up the assignment, be reminded of the readings and tackle them again. But eventually i learned that really all i had to do was read the assignment again and sit down to start my paper. And voila, suddenly i would have one, or two ideas that were mostly baked, in my brain just waiting to be written about. My work habits may have been poor but my brain was sitting there waiting to rescue me.
Throughout school i tweaked this system. I was willing and able to make the effort to do the readings early as long as i didn't have to tackle the daunting paper itself. As a reward, my brain would do the work while i wasn't thinking about it and feed the ideas back to myself when i was finally spurred by terror to get it done. it's a system that worked very well for myself and i honed it to a powerful machine.
Do i use this system today? Not really. I rarely get assignments that are more than a few days out that really need percolation of concepts in the same way that my papers did. I like to let things like test plans gestate in my brain for a while before i start them but i've found that so much that i do is so similar that if i don't write the ideas down as i get them that they will get overwritten by other ideas before i get a chance to get them down. I guess i'm slowly honing a system here were i do allow percolation of these ideas and have the rigor to take notes when the ideas that will work pop into my head but this system is by no means yet mature and i lose a lot of ideas still.
I guess that's the point of this paper that i'm writing, why the original article i read meant so much. I need to remember that this is a successful way for me to work and i have to give my subconscious the power to do it's work and my conscious mind the time to utilize the tool.
I mentioned above that even in university that this was a re-discovery of the phenomena. Years before, in middle and high school i had learned that i was a very creative person but that i didn't always have the 'great' ideas at my finger tips. I developed a minor system of saying to myself, 'i need a name for this project/paper etc,' or 'i need an idea for this project' and then letting it go for a period of time. Almost without fail within a few days, out of the blue the idea would come to me. With the system in university, i added timelines and pressure to the system and it still worked. And today in my personal life, i've taught my spouse and myself that when we put hard ideas that indicate a need for big change that i instantly resist, giving it a few days for my brain, without my conscious involvement, to chew on the idea will generally provide a much more reasonable response rather than the auto-defense mechanism of no.
one last note, I think in some ways, these days, my work itself creates this distraction path that allows me to be more creative. As a manager, most of my career has been filled with distractions, whether they be true emergencies (which my last job was filled with) or just intense context shifting all of the time. That's part of my job, and in general, part of my job that i like. But i think that one of the things that it does for me, is takes the problem i'm working on right now and gives myself the time for my subconscious to do it's work while i'm the the 3 hours of meetings that distracted me. The only challenge with this system is remembering to get back to the original problem when i come out of the meetings.
do you have any tips or tricks to use the subconscious to solve problems in the current business world?