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!

Also published on Medium.