“Need a Creative Solution? Let Your Mind Wander.”
Helping Others Solve Their Problems — Creatively
In some lines of work, people come to us and bring us something: problems.
This is not a bad thing.
For some of us are problem-solvers, and we have a special skill in helping other people solve their problems.
“Helping other people” is key. If you have ever tried to help someone with a problem, you likely know: some things we can’t do for other people; they must do it for themselves.
Therefore, when people bring us problems, we are not solving them; we are helping them solve their own problems, because in a sense: no one knows your problems better than you.
This knowledge is double-edged.
We know our problems, but we’re so familiar with them and with everything around them (the context), that we can’t, as they say, see the forest for the trees.
This is very much why people come to us for help. People who bring us problems need help seeing: seeing things differently.
Yes, people may come to us for information or a service. “How do I do this?” They don’t know and what to know.
Or “Will you do this for me?” where “this” is a service we offer.
But in both these cases, if we truly care, we must be certain that the solution the person seeks actually solves the problem she has.
And therefore there is some confirming we must do. What is the problem?
You’d think defining the problem would be easy. People come to us. They have a problem. Don’t they know what the problem is?
Sometimes they don’t.
That is one reason they bring the problem to us: because it’s especially problematic.
I’m not just playing word games here.
People have lots of problems they solve themselves. People go for help with problems when the problem seems to them unsolvable. They are aware that the problem is a bit more problematic than their garden-variety problems. But this awareness does not always extend to why.
So sometimes people don’t know what the problem is.
Other times they have defined the problem wrongly and can’t solve the problem because they have defined it so badly.
Nor do people come to us because they have not had the time or energy to attack their problematic problems.
Often, people bring us problems on which they have worked long and hard. And when we help them solve the problems in a relatively short order, they can be a bit surprised, even upset.
There is a great irony here. If we want people to come to us for help solving their problems, we should probably keep quiet about this. But I’m revealing the secret here and now, because the true irony is so compelling.
People can fail to solve their problems not despite effort and thought but because of those very things.
You heard me right.
There is recent research that suggests that creative problem-solving is actually blocked by focused rational thinking.
- Between analyzing a problem and arriving at a solution often requires a period of “incubation,” and this seems to lead to more creative solutions when this period is filled with ‘mind-wandering’ rather than focused concentration or mere boredom.
- Mind-wandering is a common mental activity: maybe 47% of our waking mental life, according to a Harvard study involving 15,000 people.
- Mind-wandering negatively affects working memory, hence focused concentration–and vice-versa. The more focused you are, the less you have access to the creative benefits of mind-wandering. (Cf. “The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering” in Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Volme 60, pp. 1–31).)
- Mind-wandering may predict individual happiness.
- Focused concentration can improve analytical problem-solving, but it actually blocks creative problem-solving.
- When our minds wander, our mental activity detaches from our senses. We imagine stories (“episodes,” as psychologists call them) that center on ourselves, are future-oriented, and laden with emotion (“affective”). And we exert some conscious control over these processes: initiating, managing, directing, and terminating them. (“The Science of Mind Wandering: Empirically Navigating the Stream of Consciousness” in Annual Review of Psychology Vol. 66: 487–518, January 2015.)
So when we talk to the people we’re helping, one way we can help them is by leading them to positive, hopeful, self-focused daydreams about their goals. Because this very mind wandering, when it follows loading the mind with the details of the problem requiring a creative solution, may increase or chances of helping our clients achieve their goals.
— Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.