How To Use Stuckness For Problem Solving

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Tuesday, 9.06pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. – Robert M. Pirsig

I’ve spent much of the last four days thinking about a particular problem.

What I do in such situations is get up early, before anyone else is about and work on whatever is on my mind.

In this case it’s a programming job but it could as easily be a business issue, a personal one or something for work or school.

This is not my first go at this particular problem, either.

I’ve tried approaching it in a number of ways.

Guess which ones have failed?

That’s right. The ones where I’ve tried to take shortcuts or where I tried to get someone else to solve it for me.

We live in a world where “hacking” has become a term that means to find a quick and easy way to do something – like life hacking or growth hacking.

Old school hackers get very cross about stuff like that and say that hacking is really about getting to the edge – doing something difficult in a playful and clever way.

Its aim is not to save you time or money. That’s what tips and shortcuts try to do.

The assumption here is that if something is worth doing it’s worth doing quickly so you can get on to doing something else.

And that seems to miss the point.

If you’re working on something worth working on you should aim to get to a point where you are completely and totally stuck.

What does that mean?

If there’s a simple way to do something what that really means is that someone spent a lot of time figuring out that approach.

Take shift rotas, for example. If you don’t work a shift job, or even if you do, have you ever considered what it takes to create a shift rota?

I hadn’t. Not until I had to implement one because asking people to volunteer was too hard and time consuming.

A paramedic friend explained how their rota worked and I used it and it worked.

It was only when I went to business school and learned about different approaches to rota design that I realised that someone had spent the time to think about this and solve it.

Any approach you’re shown that already works is going to look simple.

It’s like being told how a magic trick works.

In the instant before you’re filled with wonder and delight.

In the instant after you just note how obvious the trick was.

So, if you don’t want to be one of the people that is always looking at what other people are achieving but want to do something yourself then you need to work on things that are hard to do.

You know they’re hard because you’ve spent time on them and you feel like you’re going nowhere.

You’re stuck.

It’s like trying to push a big rock. It’s just there, in front of you, all grey and cold and big and immovable. You’ve worked on this for hours, you’re tired and exhausted and you want a way out.

So, what do you do?

You take a break. Get some rest. And then come back and keep pushing. Trying different approaches. Taking another break. And trying again.

When you’ve done this a few times you start to recognise the feelings involved. How your brain feels like it’s full of decaying gears and connectors, so rusted and unable to move that it feels like you’ll never do it.

Now, it’s a staring contest. You and your rock. You and your brain.

It’s time to just sit. Even if you feel like this is going nowhere. When you feel like there is nothing to do but sit and stare at the problem, that’s exactly what you do.

And I don’t know how to explain it but that sheer bloody-mindedness is what seems to lubricate your brain and get those parts moving again.

At some point you’ll break through, get that rock pushed over and it will start rolling downhill.

At that point, the work stops feeling like work and you just do whatever you’re doing. You’re in flow. And you’ll come up with a solution.

Strangely enough, stuckness is your friend. It tells you that you’re working on something worth working on.

And when you’re done you’ll be glad you stuck it out and go looking for your next problem.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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