Craig David and rubber ducks if you are stuck on a problem…

“I’m Walking Away”

It’s 2022 and here on UK radio stations I’ve been hearing Craig David’s 2009 hit song “Walking Away’’ quite a lot recently. Has he made a comeback? A quick Google says yes, he has!

The song title can be a very effective problem solving technique.

Facing a difficult problem head on is often advised but walking away can be an incredibly effective way of solving it — especially if you’ve taken the time to properly understand the problem first.

As a beginner software developer, walking away (and back of course!) has been by far the most effective method I’ve used for getting unstuck on coding challenges that at first seem too difficult and complex.

Zoom out — bird’s-eye view

Walking away can help you pan all the way out to see the overall problem you’re trying to solve.

This helps you fully understand the problem as a whole and avoid solutions and ideas that won’t work when applied to the bigger picture.

This is especially true in the programming world where you will always be breaking a main problem down into smaller ones and addressing them first and foremost.

Here at Makers, it’s generally advised that you don’t spend more than 20 minutes on a problem before reaching out for help.

Distraction is good — so are showers.

If you are stuck on a problem for hours on end, walking away could be the distraction your brain needs to come up with alternative solutions.

If you don’t walk away, you risk focusing too much on ideas that might never help you solve the problem.

A quote from Harvard University researcher and psychologist, Dr Shelley H. Carson, sums this up well:

“… a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution.’’

This is why they say our best ideas (“Eureka” / “aha!” moments) often come to us in the shower or whenever we do any routine activity that doesn’t fully take over our conscious minds. We are allowing our subconscious minds to “thrive” and transfer novel, creative ideas to the conscious mind.

Walking back with rubber ducks

“Rubberducking” in software engineering is worth its own blog post but when coupled with walking away, it makes for a very powerful problem-solving / debugging tag team.

Rubberducking is a famous and highly effective method for debugging code by finding solutions while explaining the code to something (e.g. a rubber duck) or someone, line by line.

When you walk away from a problem, then come back and talk through it bit by bit, you are bound to find the right solution. Or, at the very least, you will be much further down the right path than if you had kept looking at the problem in the same old light.

Summary

  • Don’t be “afraid” to walk away from a difficult problem in order to solve it. (Just don’t walk too far away, I guess…!)
  • Ironically walking away can save you a significant amount of time (and stress) compared to just continuing to spend time trying to solve the problem without taking a break.
  • Zoom out to see and understand the whole problem, unsuppress your subconscious mind and let it do some work for you.
  • Walk back to the problem, talk to a rubber duck about it — problem solved (probably, mostly!).

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. It’s my first one and I will be writing more. I hope this has given some value to you whether you are a novice or veteran problem-solver. Please get in touch with any questions and I will always welcome any kind of feedback.

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Software Developer building a career in all things tech. Background: Marketing, Customer Services, Debt Advice.

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Jovi Lau-Kwong

Jovi Lau-Kwong

Software Developer building a career in all things tech. Background: Marketing, Customer Services, Debt Advice.