Stuck? Go Choose an Easier Problem to Solve

You know that feeling!… An in-your-face problem has you feeling stuck. You’re disappointed in yourself and maybe resentful toward others about the situation. Moreover, the “stuckness” is keeping you from being fully productive and feeling competent on your other responsibilities.

If you’ve already tried your favorite problem-solving tactics – like categorizing your decision criteria, comparing scenarios, or group brainstorming — it is not a cop out to just give it a rest. I sometimes put a tough problem aside and turn elsewhere to jumpstart my momentum and feel effective. I’ll choose a much easier problem and solve it – maybe something tactical with fewer variables, lower stakes, and on more familiar terrain. I realize this sounds like I’m encouraging procrastination, something we all do well on our own! But this is different: I suggest that when you’re especially stuck, you turn your attention to another problem or task, with a clear purpose and time limits, in order to unstick yourself. A well chosen active diversion will position you to return to the big ugly problem better equipped in several ways:

  • Cognitively – The change of focus for your mind (different facts, different objectives, different people) will awaken other parts of your brain, connect different dots, and introduce ideas and new perspectives that could be useful, while resting the internal narrative that has you stuck.
  • Physically – If you are mentally stuck, your body is also experiencing the negative feeling, even if subconsciously. By doing something useful, you can “move out” of the rut. You may literally sit up straighter or breathe more easily with the change of focus, and then get energized (an embodied sense of satisfaction) by accomplishing a task or solving something else.
  • Psychologically/Emotionally – The sense of accomplishment you get can shift your mood and mindset in helpful ways. Resulting feelings may include increased confidence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, joy, or pride, among others. All of these help you bring your best self to your most challenging work!