We've all been there. Whether it is during software development or while moving into a new apartment and trying to squeeze a couch through a tight doorway, we have all encountered problems that are seemingly impossible to solve.
There are many moments during a challenging activity where we would actually benefit from simply stepping away from the problem and allowing ourselves a fresh perspective. Society has generally taught us not to give up. That the only way to solve a difficult problem is to just keep trying until you get it. While there are definitely activities that benefit from repetition, utilizing the old adage "practice makes perfect", depending on the activity, there are varying degrees to which this strategy can actually be effective. At times, the best possible option is to just step away, give yourself a break, and gain a fresh perspective.
So, why does it actually help to just stop? The human brain is very mysterious. It is very easy for us (and most mammals for that matter) to become caught up in nothing but achieving our end goal. It is so easy for us to get tunnel-vision. In her article titled "Why 'Stepping Away' Increases Creativity", Dr. Susan Weinschenk very succinctly describes why having tunnel-vision limits our creativity and problem-solving skills. In our forehead lies our prefrontal cortex. Among other things, it is the part of our brain that is responsible for not only focusing on the task at hand, but also searching for existing information in our memories AND combining it with other information from other memories. Sounds like quite the workload if you ask me! It is through the hard work of the prefrontal cortex that we are able to come up with new ideas and solve problems.
Much like a UFC fighter too focused on one aspect of mixed martial arts (pretty dangerous), having our prefrontal cortex too focused on one aspect of problem solving really inhibits our ability to see the full picture. When we step away from a problem and give our brain a chance to "reset", it allows the prefrontal cortex to once again engage in searching and combining. This gives us a better chance of utilizing concepts that we may have learned from previous memories as well as gives us the opportunity to make connections between old information and the new information we may have just learned from trying to avidly solve the problem at hand.
So, what should we do when we take a break from a difficult task? (Get away from screens)
To make the most of it, there are a few activities that are strongly recommended when taking a break from work that puts serious laborious strain on your brain. Most importantly, try and rest as many of your senses that are associated with the work that is stressing you out.
Exercise, no matter what form it takes, releases endorphins. Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body similar to the effects of Morphine (*¬*). Endorphins also interact with receptors in your brain that reduce the perception of pain (yes, they will even reduce the feeling of helplessness that is inherent with learning to program). Some quick office-appropriate exercise ideas:
a. Go for a walk either alone or with your one of your peers.
b. Do some jumping-jacks or push-ups in the stairwell (or next to your desk if you want to show off your elite form).
c. Do some pull-ups on the bathroom stall doors (Grunt loudly to exert your dominance in the office and let everyone know that you are doing pull-ups in the bathroom).
d. Challenge your peers to a "no holds barred" wrestling match in the middle of your favorite conference room. Depending on which state you live in you can have an office peer play bookie and take bets on who is going to win.
Probably best to just go for a walk or a brisk jog...
Just...let your mind, body, and especially your eyes rest for a bit. Seriously, meditation directly combats the majority of what inhibits problem solving and creativity. Meditation has been proven to:
a. Reduce stress (programming is stressful work)
b. Control Anxiety (I'm anxious just writing about being anxious)
c. Enhance Self-Awareness (see above)
d. Lengthen Attention Span (Seems pretty relevant...)
e. Possibly help fight addictions (like trying to solve problems when you clearly need to take a break).
If you need some assistance with meditation there are quite a few free apps you can find for your mobile device that will offer simple guided meditation.
My (BY FAR) personal favorite way to spend a break - A quick cat-nap can be one of the most powerful and effective activities for boosting alertness and memory cognition. Much like painting, playing the violin, or cooking a delicious meal, napping is an art form. To understand the complexities of napping one must practice napping for years and train as an understudy with one of the great nappers of our time. Ok, not really. Napping is actually pretty easy to figure out:
- The amount of time you choose to nap is the most important factor of your nap. As we fall asleep, our brains go through different stages. Different lengths of naps can greatly effect how we feel when we wake up. Basically, keep your nap limited to less than 30 minutes. Ideally, if you are trained well enough and can fall asleep quickly, 15-20 minutes is best. Plan the length of your nap based on the goals you want to accomplish afterwards. Longer naps produce longer-lasting benefits but can cause significant grogginess. If you have a marathon of work ahead of you for the evening you may want to nap longer, but for a quick burst of energy and refreshment, try and limit your snoozing to less than 30 minutes as this prohibits the brain from advancing past the stages of "light sleep".
- Practice. Seriously. If you aren't used to napping or are used to napping for long periods of time, just set an alarm for 20-30 minutes and form a habit of taking an afternoon siesta. Even if you don't "fall asleep" just resting and turning off your sensory perception is a great form of haphazard meditation.
- Life-hack: Drink a cup of coffee immediately before taking a nap. On average it takes caffeine about 20 minutes to get to your brain through your digestive system (almost like it was just meant to be...).
Numerous studies have shown that napping increases alertness, but also straight-up improves memory. Specifically, it improves declarative memory - the ability to recall specific pieces of knowledge.
In summation, if you are struggling with a difficult-to-solve problem, just take a break. Give your brain some rest and take another swing at it in 15 minutes. You'll be surprised by your new-found perspective and profound understanding. Ok, maybe not...but at least you will get some exercise or a nice nap in the meantime.