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8 mins

Are You Trying Too Hard? Stop Overthinking

How can you increase sales when the market for your product is down?
by Caitlin Schiller | Oct 4 2014

What would be the best way to make the workflow in your department more efficient while also maintaining the wellbeing of the people in it?

Are you trying too hard

So many of the problems we face at work tend to be complex – they’re not of the sort that can be dispatched by applying any of the standard solutions from school. Rather, they’re solved through insights: the kind of answers that gallop in from out of nowhere to save the day.

Problem solving through insights happens more often than you’d think. For about 60% of the problems we solve, we have no idea how we did it. The reason hints at a delightful and dismaying truth about our brains. The human brain has only one “director,” called the prefrontal cortex, and just as the conductor of an orchestra couldn’t simultaneously “hear” the individual strains from each musician in his ensemble, the prefrontal cortex (a piddling 20% of the brain) can only process so much at a time.

Because the conscious thought director is pretty overtasked, our most brilliant insights often glimmer to life behind the curtain without our explicit awareness they’ve shown up. These are the runner’s-high-induced epiphanies and the just-before-bed “Eureka!” moments. They don’t pop into our heads through logical reasoning – instead, insights depend on the unconscious, associative mind.

When insights strike it’s surprising, it’s a little magical, and luckily, you can invite them in at will.

Instead of sitting and overthinking a tough problem, studies have consistently shown that you should try to switch off your conscious mind. In Your Brain at Work, consultant, coach, and lecturer David Rock suggests taking a break. Go for a run if you can, read something unrelated, or if you’re at the office, take a quick walk around the building or the block. Whatever you do, try to find a way to de-focus your attention from the specific problem and allow your unconscious to work at the knots.

Surrendering to letting your brain wander is tough – we’re not taught to accept it as a valid method for problem solving – but it is a skill worth mastering. Next time you’re working on something that demands a stroke of lightning-bolt insight, let your mind wander. You might be surprised by the new melodies that arise when the conductor’s not looking.

Want to learn more about this? Check out more key insights from David Rock’s Your Brain at Work here.

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