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Breakthroughs & Aha Moments

It’s late. You and your team have been wrestling with a complex problem for days.

You’ve looked at the roadblocks from every angle, enlisted the input of others with potential insight into the challenge, but you haven’t landed on the solution. You’re tired and frustrated, but still determined. Before you call an "all hands" meeting or push through and work late into the night, so you don’t lose traction... think again.

Keeping a sustained, intense focus on the facts to find a solution may not be the most effective path to a breakthrough. Taking a break and getting some rest, distraction, and enjoyment may actually be the more productive thing you can do. In his Psychology Today article, “Eureka!”, Bruce Grierson looks at flashes of insight and how we might improve the odds of having an “aha moment”.

The "deliberate mode" is naturally the one we try first when problem solving. When all the pieces of the puzzle are available and can be fit together with the benefit of your experience (or that of your team), It's likely the fastest route to a solution. However, if the problem at hand requires a novel solution, it will rarely be found with a deliberate approach.

“A deliberate approach can search the whole box, but not outside of it....The brain’s resting-state circuitry employs the best, wisest, and most creative mechanics.”

JHU Neuroscientist, Jonathan Schooler’s research suggests thinking through a problem too methodically frequently impedes the solution. His research shows that our brains will actually block potential solutions from our consciousness in a process called “cognitive inhibition.” You've probably experienced this if you’ve been forming a new idea and someone asks you what you're thinking - the idea completely disappears.

Timing is important. Grierson explains that just incubating a problem isn’t enough on its own. If we back off of the deliberate phase of problem solving too soon, we may not have all the pieces needed for a solution to come together. It takes practice to know when to keep a tight deliberate focus on the problem and when it’s time to ease up and let the brain do its work.

If you and your team feel like you’ve exhausted the known approaches and are fatigued, it might be more effective to spend some time away from the problem and develop a novel perspective that can result from a rest/recharge strategy.

“The idea is to lower your resistance to breakthrough perspective shifts, which often just means easing your grip on the wheel. “ Here are a few strategies that you and your team might try that could trigger an “aha moment”.

Meditate. Meditators can learn to power down the frontal cortex, in order to tap the non-deliberate thinking mode. Roland Griffiths, a neuroscientist at John Hopkins University considers this the best approach to prepare the mind for insight, but he also recognizes that meditation can be challenging for busy minds. “It’s not easy, and it can be really frustrating because the mind mutinies.”

Break a Sweat. Exercise for at least a half an hour in a form that doesn’t require in the moment concentration. This may be running or cycling, as opposed to squash or hockey. Our mental states while exercising produces both detachment and focus and may be a very reliable insight producing state.

Enjoy some art.

Visit a Museum, Read a Book, Listen to Music. National Public Radio Studio 360 has run a segment called “The Aha Moment” and has presented hundreds of stories about lives changed in a moment by art. “Often it’s the emotional payload of great art that awakens something dormant in the brain.”

Travel. Travel disorients us from our familiar setting. We are receptive to new experiences, new rituals, and new environments. In this state we are open to and are making new associations which can break us out of a mental rut. In the short term, move outside your office, go for coffee, change your environment to open new connections.

Letting your brain idle may create worry that you’re not working hard enough, at first. Accomplished leaders are good at staying with to tough problems and working them through to solution within a specific time-frame. There will always be a need for this deliberate-mode strategy. Weighing options and making quick decisions are crucial leadership skills. But when the deliberate approach isn’t yielding a satisfactory solution – incubation and time away may be the most effective way to coalesce all of the data and lead to a truly novel solution and breakthrough.

(This article was revised from its original post on
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