Archimedes figured out how to determine how much gold there was in a crown while lying in the bath tub. While dozing by the fire, Friedrich August Kekule had a dream of snakes that allowed him to understand the structure of benzene. For both of these scientists, the answer came when they stopped “thinking” about the question and did something else. They put their problem on the back burner and suddenly the answer popped into their minds.
Has something like this ever happen to you? You aren’t sure about something. Rather than thinking about it over and over, you get up and take a shower. Or go for a run. Or listen to music. Or watch TV. Suddenly the solution pops into your head—that day or the next, or maybe a week later.
Brain scientists now know why this happens. It’s because when we focus on something, there is a part of our brain that is trying to help us concentrate by cutting off access to the rest of our brain. When we “give up,” that part turns off and we are in touch with all of our resources. Isn’t that ironic? By trying to help us, it actually hinders!
The problem is that, because we’ve never been issued the driver’s manual to our minds, most of us believe that we need to focus even more. And that can actually prevent us from finding a solution. According to Robert Cooper and Ayman Sawaf in Executive EQ, for instance, working too long at mental tasks can cause your problem solving time to increase by up to 500 percent. In other words, the more we try to stay focused on a task, the worse we get at doing it.
Next time you’re stuck or want to think creatively about something, don’t try to work on it. Go for a walk, play golf, draw, talk to a friend about something else. Notice if a solution comes.