Want More Aha! Moments? Take a Break!

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“Solving a problem for which you know there’s an answer is like climbing a mountain . . . [the solution is] not always at the top . . . It might be in a crack on the smoothest cliff or somewhere deep in the valley.” Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor

You’ve been working on a difficult problem for days. Maybe it involves a troubled student or patient, a compelling design, a lengthy chapter, or a complex mathematical puzzle. Each day you return to it, and each day you hit the same wall. You’re stuck.

Then, all of a sudden, you figure it out. A solution seems to appear out of nowhere, and you experience an aha! moment that brings it all together.

While you’re relieved in the moment, you have to admit you can already feel the worry building for the next time you’re stuck. It’s inevitable. Getting stuck seems to come with the territory. And, fortunately, the aha! moments do as well. Wouldn’t it be great if you could take steps to trigger them?

Well, some thought leaders and researchers think you can. In his 1926 book, The Art of Thought, Graham Wallas, theorist and London School of Economics co-founder, identified the stages he believed all creative problem solvers go through on their way to an aha! moment.

Leading up to a solution, Wallas emphasized the importance of preparation. It’s expected that problem solvers have given hours, days, weeks or even longer to understanding the problem. Once they’ve exhausted all ideas and, essentially, reached an impasse, they reach what he termed, an incubation stage.

During the incubation stage, problem solvers step away from the problem to do something else. Unbeknownst to them, however, their brain is processing – working to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble the problem.

While Wallas identified this stage, along with its importance for problem solving, he was unable to point to what types of incubation activities might trigger a solution. That’s where Lancaster University psychologists, Ut Na Sio and Thomas C. Ormerod came in.

In his book, How We Learn, Benedict Carey discusses how, in 2009, Sio and Ormerod analyzed 37 of the most rigorous studies on the impact of taking breaks during problem solving. What they found led them to conclude that certain types of breaks can serve as triggers for solutions to certain types of problems.

From the research, Sio and Ormerod found that breaks tend to fall into three categories: (1) relaxing – lying on a couch and listening to music; (2) mildly active – surfing the Internet; or (3) highly engaging – writing a short essay or working on other homework. Next, they found that certain types of breaks lent themselves best to certain types of problems.

For example, they learned that all three types of breaks – relaxing, mildly active, and highly engaging – worked well for people stuck on math or spatial problems. In contrast, a highly engaging break worked best for people trying to solve linguistic problems. In addition, they found that 20-minute breaks worked best.

So next time you’re working on a problem and you get stuck, remember to take a break. If possible, keep it to 20 minutes, and choose an activity that lends itself best to solutions for the type of problem you’re working on.

Let me know how it goes!

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