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Stumped and stymied — we’ve all been there. As busy working professionals in an ever-changing world, most of us periodically face complex problems that lack obvious answers.
Whether it’s a challenging new work assignment or a conflictual situation with a colleague, not all problems arrive with fast, easy solutions. If you find yourself stuck, here are some techniques that can help you break free from deadlock.
1. Give it some time and come back
We now exist in a world full of instant gratification. When we post on social media, it takes only seconds before our world begins providing us with likes and comments. Smartphones allow us to pay bills, get driving directions, read emails and check the weather nearly simultaneously and with just the click of a button.
We’ve come to expect that things happen quickly — sometimes nearly immediately — so it can feel counterintuitive to walk away from a tough problem and give it more time. However, that’s exactly what we should do. When we leave a tough problem and go do something else for a period of time, we allow both our subconscious and conscious brains time to rest, reset and consider new information. Whether we work on another project, go work out, sleep or just take a day off from the problem before coming back, time away helps.
Putting space between the stimulus (the problem we’re facing) and our response (what to do about it) almost always produces new thoughts and ideas. Most have experienced times when solutions simply just “came to us” in the shower, on a run or upon waking up from a restful slumber. If you’re totally gridlocked, put it down and do something else. You might be surprised by what subconsciously (and consciously) enters your mind.
2. Leverage your resources
All too often, we don’t ask for help nearly enough (or early enough). Our colleagues, friends, family, books and of course, the internet can often provide us with exactly the answers we’re looking for. But we go it alone far too often. We don’t consider our contacts or connections that have done this sort of work before or been in this same situation. We don’t like being vulnerable, so we fail to ask for help.
We sometimes feel that we should be able to figure things out independently because that’s what smart, creative people do — but that’s nonsense. We, as humans, thrive most when we pool resources with others. When I started my coaching practice, I didn’t go it alone. My realtor introduced me to an executive coach to guide me, and I hired her. I remembered that an old contact of mine (from a university alumni club) was a web designer, and I hired him. A former colleague of mine suggested I use Fiverr to generate a media kit and get a book cover designed, so I did. When picking my book cover, I consulted with my professional and social media and took in over 100 votes on which one to select. When it came to the many tough decisions I made, it was shocking how much support and guidance I found in others. Without their help, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
3. Grab a pen and start to write
When we write things down, we improve our brain’s ability to process information. The act of writing things down and seeing them helps our cognitive processes. If you’re stuck, write down what you know, what you don’t and what you’ll need to find out. When we take time to detail what information we already have, what information we need to get, where we might locate it, what our hypothesis is, alternatives to that hypothesis and possible plans or courses of action to figure it all out, we turn on our creative capacities and access parts of our brain that assist with innovation.
Instead of just staring off into space as we wait for the answers to appear, we can free up space in our brains for solving problems by flushing out all the information above. For bonus points, write things down with a pen and paper. In today’s world of technology, many of us take notes on a device, but the act of actually holding a pen and going through the physical act of writing has been proven to help us learn, retain and process information better.
4. Make headway on the parts you can solve
I’ve seen so many instances where people refuse to take the first step or two because they can’t see the whole staircase. Sometimes we’re afraid to start writing that paper or building that presentation deck because we’re missing key data or don’t quite know what the final conclusion will be. It’s almost odd how simply getting started on whatever parts you can solve opens your mind.
For months, I held off on writing my book because I felt I had to write it in order, and I couldn’t figure out how to begin. I didn’t know what overarching story I wanted to use for my prologue. And, the concepts in chapter one were fuzzy at best. Eventually, I decided to simply dive in by writing chapters two and three which were clearer. As I did, the ideas for the intro and chapter one came to me. Recently, the same thing happened with a keynote speech that I shared with another person. We spent hours working to envision what the end goal or objective of our talk was — basically, what we wanted to leave our audience with. At some point, we just began working on the slides. As we did, the end game for our presentation began to unfold. By working on the parts we did know, the ideas and epiphanies for where we wanted to land took shape. If you’re stuck, just get started on any part you can.
Next time you’re stuck, try these four things before you feel all is lost. You’ll be amazed at how many solutions will come.