How to Better Solve Complex Problems and Learn New Things

A completely realistic rendering of my eureka moment by Nicolas Gras on Unsplash.

A couple of days ago I was driving home from my parents and not really thinking about anything special, when I realized something about two completely unrelated things I had struggled with in the last few weeks, which let to some kind of eureka moment about ideas and problem solving.

The first situation was buying a new climbing harness. I have been an avid climber for a decade now and my current climbing harness is on the verge of wearing through. For some weeks now I have been looking online for a new one, but for some reason I didn’t manage to decide on a harness to buy. This is kind of strange for me, as I am usually a quick shopper. But here I was checking out harnesses every few days, but I just didn’t manage to choose one. I  bought my current one years ago without much thought and it was perfectly fine, so I couldn’t understand what was stopping me. Then, on Sunday morning, I started looking again and here I was – my indecision gone – and I easily selected one and bought it right away.

The second thing I struggled with was a software project I was working on. It wasn’t a trivial problem, but it wasn’t that hard either.  However, every time I sat down and tried to start on it I thought a bit and tinkered around, but rather quickly I always found something else “important” to do. This went on for a few days, then a week. I did make a little progress with the design, but at no point I sat down and really started implementation of this part of the software. It seemed to me that I just couldn’t find the right approach to the problem at hand.

A totally unrelated picture of a puppy by Duffy Brook (Unsplash).

What connects these situations, and what I didn’t realize until my drive home, is that in both I was missing some piece of “critical” information: while I have been climbing for years, I hadn’t really thought much about what I need in a climbing harness. So when I started looking at different types, I actually just started my research into them, but at this point I didn’t really know what I wanted. Over the days and weeks I thought more about what I need and in which situations I want to use it and only after I subconsciously defined what features I needed, I “could” decide. The same thing was the case with the software project – it took me the whole week to subconsciously think through the problem until I had all of the moving parts assembled in my mind to really start implementation.

What I did realized on my way home was that this is something I had read about a couple of years ago – it is the process that helps to have a Eureka Moment. At the time I was reading about it I considered it a fascinating idea, but I didn’t really think that my usual tasks required “eureka moments” to solve. I mean, I wasn’t trying to invent a new kind of physics, they mostly were just “normal” tasks and how could this be relevant to me? What I really only grasped here is that this works for many – also mundane – problems and probably makes solving complex tasks easier and that I was doing it – in a way – all along!

The process is markedly simple – start by really immersing yourself in the subject at hand, then take a break from the task and do something different. It’s best if it is something that doesn’t need your full attention – doing the dishes, showering, taking a walk – you name it, but it basically can be anything at all. After some time, pick up the original task and work on it some more and repeat this process until you are done. Markedly, this is also very similar to Spaced Practice, one of the best ways to learn new stuff.

The best way to have a eureka moment. Photo by Jad Limcaco on Unsplash

What happens here is that you give your mind a lot of information to process by immersing yourself, followed by time to really process this information subconsciously, and through repetition you keep your brain working on it. At some point your subconsciousness has spent enough time on the task at hand to solve it, or, in case of learning, really carve out the neural path ways to store the new information.

So, make your life easier and learn more using eureka moments and spaced practice!

Paths and Perception

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

We will always meet and never meet again. Our corridors lead us forever apart.

Ursula K. LeGuin – Paradise Lost, The Found and the Lost

This poem from the novella Paradise Lost by Ursula K. LeGuin made me think about how our environment influences how we think and communicate. It is the story of woman who is born and grows up on a generation space ship traveling to a far away planet and the poem is written by this young woman about one of her friends who once was close, but has drifted off.

Photo by Dylan McLeod on Unsplash

What especially fascinates me is “Our corridors lead us forever apart.” It felt so strange to read this. We, who have grown up and live on a planet, with open spaces and ways that crisscross the world wouldn’t phrase it like that. We would probably say something like “our paths lead us forever apart“, which makes sense if you have the concept of path. The first definition of path in the Free Dictionary is “a road or way, esp a narrow trodden track“, the second is “a surfaced walk, as through a garden“. Even if you were born in a large city and have never seen a path as I automatically visualize it – a small worn out track through a wood – you would still know the concept from tiny alleys or the ways through a park. The concept is deeply ingrained in all of us as we have seen and walked paths all our life.

But is a path is a concept that you would understand intuitively if you were born on a space ship that consists of spaces connected by corridors? Probably not. Probably the ingrained concept of a way that leads you to or from someone would be a corridor as LeGuin writes in the poem. And this is not only true for a path and it isn’t only true for fictional people living in a fictional spaceship. This is true for everything and all of us.

What we perceive and how we perceive things is strongly shaped by our past and current environment. If you grew up in a city you have probably learned how to navigate streets, when you can safely jaywalk, and how to ignore people around you in the subway. These are the skills you need to “survive” in this environment. What you haven’t learned is to track – or even see – wild animals on the savanna. I learned this first hand during a trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, where I completely failed to see a Lion pub sitting right next to the car until it was pointed out to me. Your experience is a completely different one to someone who has grown up on the savanna and whose life literally depends on her skills to recognize a Lion in the underbrush.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Now, if we consider that each of us has a vastly different perception of the world, isn’t it understandable that we often don’t understand each other? I believe if we manage to keep this in mind and more often try to see also the other side of an argument then all of us will get along much better. And this is something we will definitely need if we want to tackle the challenges that are ahead of us on this tiny blue dot in the middle of emptiness.

Fading Glow

This single moment when the power is gone, the filament still shining brightly, only to fade away in an instant.

Thanks to Devin Avery on Unsplash

There is so much beauty in a light bulb being switched off in a darkened room. This single moment when the power is gone, the filament still shining brightly, only to fade away in an instant. Just like a glow worm on a warm summer night. A tiny speck of light in the darkness. Temporary, but never fully gone, it’s beauty forever burned into my neural pathways.