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SPECIES OF SOLVING

January 6th, 2023

I’m writing this as a productive form of procrastination and in part out of guilt because I didn’t get a post up yesterday. So it’s a win-win. Right?

 

The reason for the procrastination is because I have a tedious problem in front of me regarding the work I should be doing. It’s a very solvable problem, and I’ve solved it before, it just always requires a finicky process. You basically just take pot-shots at it until it works using a known pallet of ammo.

 

That type of problem just requires effort, and the more you pour in the faster it gets solved. Otherwise it just lingers and creates space for more and more procrastination.

 

Many problems in life are like this. In fact, it seems most jobs are like this. Very few people get to work a job that has interesting problems that require thoughtful consideration and a flexible, dynamic imagination. 

 

Those sorts of problems require an inverse strategy when stuck. Spending hours and hours chipping away at a novel problem with no progress usually doesn’t benefit from more of the same. Getting some sleep, or going for a walk is often far more effective. Thomas Edison even had this down to a practical science. Whenever he was “stuck” he would sit in his chair and hold a big metal ball bearing in one hand with that arm hanging toward the floor. Then he would let himself fall asleep. The ball bearing was his alarm clock - so to speak. The moment he fell asleep he would drop the ball bearing, it would hit the floor and he would wake up from the crash. This micro-sleep was just enough to completely reorient the brain. If I remember correctly, this pre-sleep phase is when the brain is dominated by so called K-Waves. Edison would often snap back to full attention with a new potential solution to his problem.

 

Personally, I’ve put this to effect many times. Though not with a ball bearing. What I’ve done - and it was before I heard this about Edison, is that when I am drifting off to sleep, I would simply and deliberately ask my brain to work on the problem that I was stuck on. This has worked particularly well for design problems that are of a visual nature. I let the elements float around in that anti-gravity space that seems to dominate the threshold to sleep. Often right as I’m passing that threshold and becoming truly unconscious, the elements suddenly snap into a completely new arrangement in  a way that solves the problem. I’d wake up the next morning with the new arrangement still there, fresh in my mind.

 

This happened a few times by accident and then I started deliberately employing it. Now when I find myself exhausted, and at the tail end of a solid number of hours trying to find the best way through a tricky problem, I will call it quits earlier than I usually would and hit the hey with the deliberate plan of solving my problem there. And it has been a remarkably robust strategy of problem solving.

 

So problems fall into two general categories: there’s the problems that have known solutions and those that have unknown solutions. 

 

Both require an initial amount of grind, or time and effort. But if they persist as obstacles the strategies for each are inverses of the other.

 

 

 

Known solutions that persist require more grind.

 

Unknown solutions that persist require a total halt in effort.

 

 

 

It makes one wonder if there’s something about the contraction of attention that permits or excludes certain types of flexible thinking. Grinding away at a problem involves a rather constricted sense of focus. The mind is zoomed-in to the exclusion of all other details and concerns.

 

But think about that for a second. When you are zoomed-in to a high degree, then by definition, you can’t notice what’s around you. And if you’re looking for something new, then what better place to look than all the places to which you are currently blind? Maybe this is why a problem that requires a novel solution requires a break from the grind. Attention needs to be expanded in order to include a larger set of possible elements to incorporate in potential combinations to hit upon a solution.

 

Searching for the known? 

Grind to the bone.

 

Searching for the unknown? 

Go be alone..


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