A recent game of Scrabble reminded me just how easy it is to get stuck and hit a mental wall. As I stared at the seven tiles on my rack and the myriad of words already intertwined on the board, the tenser I became. Furiously, I began to shuffle the tiles in my rack, hoping that something would emerge. This strategy had worked for me in the past, but after several shuffles I was again at the impasse and growing more frustrated by the minute. How often have you found yourself hitting that mental wall and continuing to pursue solutions to a new problem based on previous experience and strategies used to solve similar problems—only to deepen the impasse?
As counterintuitive as it may seem, the best way to break through being stuck and spur creativity is to let the brain idle so that you can stop the forward momentum in the wrong direction. Think about it like this: you can only go in one direction at a time, so in order to shift course, you’ve first got to stop where you are and assess where you could go. It is only when we let the brain idle that we can engage in contemplating a new direction, stimulate creativity, and uncover new insights and solutions.
Here are some ways to shift the direction and change the trajectory of your thinking so that you can break through those impasses in your life.
1. Stop the Momentum and Get Off the Treadmill
Letting your brain go into idle, or to briefly be distracted from the matter at hand, means that you first must acknowledge what you’re doing just isn’t creating anything other than tension, stress, and reduced creativity. Reduce the pressure by taking a mental break—move on to a task that requires less thought and helps you replace the former thoughts you were myopically focused on. Another strategy is to take a physical pause—get up and stretch, go for a walk, have a snack, or do something else that will help you take your focus off the impasse. All of these options let the brain calm down and clear the stage for new thoughts and insights to emerge.
2. Reduce the Complexity and Seek the Clarity that Distance Brings
Now that your mind has had an opportunity to become quiet and you are more relaxed, you should simplify and enumerate the significant points of the situation at hand. Once you have the high-level issues outlined, you can begin to step back and look at them from a 10,000-foot perspective. This perspective will give you the opportunity to become aware of the subtle signals, patterns, and links between things that were missed earlier when we were anxious and overly focused on the details. The key here is to resist the urge to embed yourself in the minutia and drill down into the detail. Focus more on the patterns, or pay attention to different areas that were not visible to you in your state of heightened anxiety. This will trigger new thoughts and help you uncover previously overlooked connections.
3. Leverage Expertise That is Not Your Own
We already know that what’s keeping us stuck is that we are approaching a new situation using our old patterns of thinking, expertise, and knowledge. It is time to reach out and leverage someone else’s expertise. Choose someone whose knowledge base is different than yours, whose life experience is different, or who can bring a fresh eye to the situation at hand. Listening to how they view the situation, and what they see as significant, can open up new directions for you to begin exploring. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at the situation so long that the small details are overlooked, and to an untrained eye they don’t look so small in nature. No two people see things alike, so listening for their approach allows for novel ways of approaching the situation to come to light
4. Notice the Insights and Use That Energy to Move Forward
Insights can take place at any time or any place. Be prepared for them to come at any time—even in your morning shower. Keep track on paper of things you want to explore or pursue. When you have an insight you’ll also get a boost of energy and excitement that will propel you toward the solution. The a-ha moment generates the energy you need to commit to taking that next step, but it also shines a spotlight on all the successive steps you didn’t notice before.
As for me, the answer to my impasse at Scrabble came as the result of taking a pause and listening to someone else’s idea. I took a break from the game and over of cup of tea talked with one of my friends who’d been observing the game. She drew my attention to the fact that among my seven tiles was a blank tile—something right in front of me that I had overlooked as I tried to make a word from the letters in my rack.