Distraction problem

Sometimes, the only way out of a tricky problem is through another problem. I don’t mean re-assess and approach the problem differently (though that can certainly help), I mean focusing on a totally different problem for awhile.

It is counter-intuitive, if you have a big thorny problem, to put it away and think about something else, but a timely distraction problem can be invaluable, in my experience.

I think many people do this; it’s not a secret or a deliberately cultivated skill. But being aware of it as a tool is pretty useful.

One example of the distraction problem that a bunch of us can probably relate to is when you are trying to master a skill in a video game and you just cannot get it, so you try harder, and harder, and get more and more frustrated, and then you scream or cry or throw the controller (or storm off in a huff, whatever). But when you go back to the game after a period of time, you nail the skill on the first try. You’ve calmed down. You have experience doing the skill (badly, but experienced it nonetheless). Importantly, your brain has shifted its understanding of the skill. Not that you’re particularly conscious of that, but it somehow just clicks.

There’s a lot of stuff you already can figure out; you have the information you need, you have the context and situational awareness, etc. The meta-problem to solving the problem is that you’re upside down within it, and you’ve lost your orientation. You’ve gotten locked in with the wrong signifiers, and you’ve misallocated the signified. If you’re thinking of a zebra but you’re calling it a horse, doggedly, it would behoove you to stop, but you don’t recognize the error. Faulty assumptions that you aren’t aware you’ve already made are very hard to spot and fix.

Your brain is a magnificent commodity. It can do many splendored things, but you need to take it off big thorny things sometimes and let it earn some wins. When you distract it with an interesting fresh problem that you already know is solvable, your brain puts the big thorny problem on the back burner. While doing so, extraneous stuff falls away, and clarity emerges (you may need to do this a few times). Your brain likes getting stuff right! It’s energizing, so it genuinely is important to give it things to be successful at.

I like other puzzles, myself. Crosswords, nanograms, riddles, Wordle, sudoku, etc. These are solvable, my brain already knows the pattern, and they’re absorbing enough that I’m not continuing to frustrate my brain on the other problem.

I think (?) that some people use podcasts for this. It’s not really a distraction problem, more of a general distraction. That doesn’t work for me, because I just stop listening to the podcast and start thinking about the original problem again. But I feel fairly confident that this is enough of a change for some folks that it works just as well. I simply prefer problems.

Wield distraction confidently. Use it for a purpose. Find the distraction that keeps the top of your brain busy, but lets the murky depths do what it does. See what comes.

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