It’s 10:20 pm — and you’re still at the office. Any moment now, the cleaning crew will arrive and the vacuuming will start and you’ll have to put on your headphones just to hear yourself think. Your wife calls, asking if she should wait up. “Leaving any minute,” you tell her, staring up at an empty screen. You haven’t produced anything substantive for hours. Yet for reasons you can’t understand, it’s been impossible to walk away. Even now, the answer seems so close.
If your work involves creative thinking, you are bound to encounter times like this — times you feel stuck. Perhaps you’re not sure how to start a project, respond to a client email, or structure an upcoming presentation. You’re trying to be productive, yet as you turn the problem over in your head again and again, you find yourself running into the same barriers.
When this happens, a common reaction is to redouble your efforts. Who doesn’t love a good persistence story? Most of us have been taught that the only thing standing between us and a successful outcome is hard work.
But the research tells us something different. While grit does have its role, when it comes to creative solutions, dogged persistence can actually backfire.
A funny thing happens when you’re thinking about a problem. The more time you spend deliberating, the more your focus narrows.
It’s an experience familiar to all of us. When you first encounter a problem, certain solutions immediately burst to the fore. Occasionally, none of them seem quite right, so you try to reexamine the issue, giving it a fresh look, and then another. Before you know it, something counterproductive happens. You lose sight of the big picture and become fixated on details. And the harder you try, the less likely it is that unexpected, novel ideas will enter your train of thought.
It’s at this point that you’ve reached a point of diminishing returns on your efforts.
So what should you do?
Research suggests that when you find yourself at an impasse, it’s often fruitful to use psychological distance as a tool. By temporarily directing your attention away from a problem, you allow your focus to dissipate, releasing its mental grip. It’s then that loose connections suddenly appear, making creative insights more likely.
While most of us intuitively know that a three-day weekend or an extended vacation can yield a renewed perspective, those options aren’t always available, especially when we’re facing a deadline.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t reap the benefits of psychological distance in our day-to-day work. Here are three practices that can help.
1. Struggling for more than 15 minutes? Switch tasks.
In an earlier post, I described the perils of task switching. When we’re making good progress, allowing distractions to hijack our attention can derail our focus. But the moment we experience ourselves getting stuck, the rules shift. Here, a well-timed distraction can be a boon to creativity.
When we let go of a problem, our perspective expands. This explains why we discover so many solutions in odd places, like the shower, the commute back home, or the visit to the gym. Redirecting our attention to an unrelated task also provides room for incubation, a term psychologists use to describe nonconscious thinking. Studies show that following a brief distraction, people generate more creative solutions to a problem than those who spend the same period of time focusing on it intently.
The trick is to recognize when you are feeling stuck and resist the temptation to power through. In many cases, it is precisely when we are at our most discouraged that we can derive the greatest benefit from walking away.
2. For tasks requiring creative thinking, schedule multiple sessions over several days.
Often, the most productive way of resolving a difficult problem is to alternate between thinking about it very deeply and then strategically shifting your attention elsewhere. Instead of setting aside one continuous block of time to work on a creative project, schedule shorter, more frequent sessions. By planning multiple periods of deep thinking, you’re guaranteed a few transitions away from your task, ensuring that your focus expands.
3. Put mind-wandering periods to good use.
Creative solutions rarely emerge when we’re in the office. Which is why it can be helpful to keep an ongoing list of “thinking problems” that you can access on the go. Glance at your list just before entering mind-wandering periods, like when you’re going out for a sandwich or traveling between meetings. A new context can lead to a fresh perspective.
Ultimately, the key to harnessing the power of psychological distance involves accepting that often, the best ideas don’t appear when we’re pushing ourselves to work harder. They prefer sneaking up on us, the moment we look away.