Coming up with your own solutions before checking up on Google or with experts can vastly improve your results, dispel worries, and increase your confidence in your own creative powers.
By relying on your own knowledge reservoir, your own subconscious mind, you might dig out nuggets no one else has found.
If you are lucky, you get to explore areas of the solution space (the set of all possible solutions) no one has looked at. Everyone else might have sniffed around in just one corner.1
Whether you are looking for a solution to a problem or want to write an article or blog post, I suggest you look inside yourself before you check up on solutions on the Internet.
I would go so far as to say, it is often (not always) best to not read anything before you have not described the challenge in writing and written about it yourself.
If you want to get your head around something, just start writing. That way, your writing comes from you and isn’t yet clouded by the most prominent public opinion or scientific expertise. Empty everything out.
The Road most Traveled
Many people, when trying to solve a problem, go right to Google and ask “How can I do such and such…”
They’ll look at the list of results and click on articles or videos they find most appealing or consider closest to what they are looking for.
Then they start reading, often only skipping from heading to heading to figure out whether the article in front of them might help them to solve their problem. Sometimes they get stuck because they have found an interesting piece of information.
The disciplined ones keep systematically scouting for articles they deem relevant to their challenge. After spending 30 minutes or even an hour following link after link, they have an overview of the most popular solutions to their problem.
Maybe they have taken notes or highlighted stuff and now have a short list of the most popular solutions or failed solutions.
If they can’t find a solution, they assume there is none.
On a different note, there are really cool tools out there to help with scouting for solutions and reading and organizing the web. I will link to one at the end of this article, but now I want to keep you here.
Let’s go back to the “Google it first” approach.
There is a problem with this:
More often than not, “Googlers” haven’t allowed their mind to come up with his/her own ideas.
They might not even have taken the time to make it clear to themselves what exactly they were looking for. They haven’t asked the best questions to describe their problem.
But now they feel full and information overload is looming; they have used up their mental capacity trying to understand the thoughts other people had when they had been facing a possibly similar challenge.
In a way, their mind has now been tainted; they have created plenty of new memories of what other people were thinking about a particular topic without having consulted their own thoughts, experiences and subconscious knowledge.
Left out are their own initial ideas and gut feelings about how to go about their particular challenge. These might have taken them in a completely different direction.
Too bad! Instead of being boxed-in by the Google’s list of results, they could have unearthed some real nuggets and found paths that no one has thought of before. Instead of walking down well-trotted paths and most-traveled roads, they might have discovered unexplored areas of the solution space.
What’s more, the solutions presented to them on pages 1 and 2 in Google might have been on top because they were the most popular or most keyword optimized rather than the most elegant ones.
Don’t get me wrong, Google is a great search engine; they are constantly improving their algorithms to weed out poorly written stuff, and they have a pretty good grip on what might be a good solution.
So I would certainly use Google to find stuff, but I would experiment with looking inside myself first.
Of course, sometimes you might find that you really know too little to even attempt a solution, but in the worst case, you have lost half an hour.
How to tap into your own problem solving powers?
There are several ways, but the one I find easiest is Freewriting.
Just sit down and start writing.
Start by formulating the challenge or topic you want to explore in one or two short sentences. I recommend starting with a question.
Then empty your mind by writing for at least 20 minutes on either a sheet of paper or in Word, OneNote, Evernote, or whatever you like. Don’t concern yourself with grammar, style, or avoiding repetition. Write down whatever comes to mind.
At least at first, I recommend to mostly write complete sentences, instead of just noting down phrases and keywords. This tends to keep at least me with a thought for long enough to explore it deeply enough.
Sometimes you might get stuck, and think, “how does this work,” or “I wonder what the half-life of cortisol is,” etc. Note down these questions right in your writing and prefix them with a thick question mark. These might be just the right questions to later type into Google or ask experts.
You also want to note hypotheses and speculate on answers to your questions.
After freewriting for 20 to 30 minutes, you will likely have a much clearer idea of your challenge. You might already have possible solutions to explore. You will also have noted the questions you need to answer to move forward.
Why not just ponder the problem in your mind?
Wouldn’t that be faster? Not really; it could last forever.
I have found that I often loop when I ponder a problem in my mind. At some point, thoughts repeat themselves, likely because I keep triggering the same associations.
While writing, these loops become apparent, and I can easily move on to a different train of thoughts.
Problems are often associated with worries.
These worries can be overwhelming and become the main content of the mind. When I write, however, these worries almost always subside after a while, at least for long enough to allow me to think more broadly about the topic.
If you find yourself frantically looking for a solution while stressed or extremely worried, this is because you have likely triggered your body’s stress response. This leads to narrow-minded thinking. You want a fast way out!
Just writing about your problem or challenge is very often enough to dispel worries and see more clearly what is going on. Sometimes you don’t really need to solve a problem, you just need to write and the worries disappear all by themselves.
Our working memory capacity is quite limited.
We can mentally only juggle a few items at the same time.
IQ tests often try to assess this limited working memory by filling it to the point where you don’t have the necessary capacity left to make connections.
By writing everything on a sheet of paper, however, you can significantly increase your capacity to juggle and combine thoughts.
Adding two three-digit numbers in your mind might work. But how about adding three: 926+348+137=?
If you are like me, you’ll find that tough to do. I know, this can be practiced, and there are ways to do it. But keeping all three numbers in your mind and doing all the arithmetic at the same time is a challenge nevertheless, and it occupies valuable resources. Not so on a sheet of paper: You can note intermediate results and look back at them.
The same applies to combinatorial and logical problems.
A sheet of paper will vastly increase the problem complexity you can master.
It will also allow you to break out of a narrow, limiting train of thoughts because you can note the sequence down and then move on.
My feeling is that this is one of the main reasons why writing out worrying thoughts will often get rid of them. They kind of untangle themselves when written out.
When starting out with a challenge, you want to avoid cognitive fixation on other people’s thoughts2 and even the opinion of experts and scientific findings. You also want to avoid fixation on your own worries and narrow trains of thoughts.
Jot down the problem as a question or in a couple of sentences. Then just start writing complete sentences for 20 to 30 minutes. Write down whatever comes to mind. Note down questions you encounter and prefix them with a question mark. If you have time, let the whole thing sit for a while.
I often engage in this kind of writing in the morning. Then I might go and take a shower. More ideas will show up. I make mental notes of them and later add to my writing.
Another idea for expanding on your initial writing and exploring more of the solution space is changing the scenery. I often vary my environment to spur creativity.
Then it is time to do some Googling and read other people’s articles. Their solutions and ideas now fall on fertile ground – your own framework of ideas, thoughts, concepts, and questions. You will likely be a better and at the same time more critical reader.
To keep track of what you find, I recommend your try to read, annotate, and organize what you read with Diigo.
- Head tip to Steve Pavlina for the solution space (the set of all possible solutions to a problem). In his video Elegant Solutions, he describes how he often tried to avoid applying the solution presented by his math teachers because everyone could do that. He figured he needed to develop the ability to come up with own solutions if he wanted to add value to this world.
- Cognitive fixation can also become an issue in brainstorming groups. Earlier input from other team members can lock the session into certain subtopics and lead to fewer ideas.