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Practical tips for problem solving

Problems. We all have them. How to make cash flow this month. When to hire that new person. Whether to upgrade the web site or not. Fortunately researchers are working hard to discover what helps us solve problems more easily. Here are 6 practical tips for problem solving based on recent neurological and psychological research.

1. Find a thinking place

Samantha does her best problem solving while washing up. I think better at my table than I do at my desk. My mum used to think in the car while waiting to pick up kids from music practice. Where you problem-solve matters. Establish a place for thinking, and do it there. Obviously it is more effective if there is not too much noise and few interruptions.

2. Stop trying

Andrew’s shower time is when he has his greatest ahah! moments. Perhaps you’ve experienced the same thing. MRI research shows the answer to a tricky problem comes when you think about it, and then stop thinking about it. It’s when you stop thinking, when the analytical left brain takes a holiday and the associative right brain takes over that you have insight. So give yourself time to think about it, and then don’t think. Stay in bed (awake!) for a moment or two longer. Spend a minute longer in the shower. Take a lunch time stroll. You’ll solve more problems with less effort.

3. Try the Brain(less) Trust

When Bilyana, a mortgage broker, gets really stuck on a problem, she talk to her sister, who works in child care. Explaining the problem often solves it – her sister asks questions no one else does. This is the magic of the Outsider perspective, well-documented by creativity researchers.

4. Smile

Freaky experiments show that people holding a pen between their teeth solve more problems. This activates the smile muscle which stimulates feel-good chemicals in your brain.  If you can’t muster or maintain a smile, try holding a pen cross-ways in your teeth (not your lips). When you feel good you solve more problems.

5. Look after yourself

What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Consider exercising (cardio-vascular exercise creates new brain cells, and may combat Alzheimer’s); napping (if you get REM sleep, you solve 40% more puzzles than if you don’t); drinking more water; taking fish oil or B vitamins and eating breakfast regularly.

6. Do just one thing at a time

Finally it’s important to know that multi-tasking is a myth. You cannot work on a problem while watching TV, helping kids with homework or talking on the phone. And no, gender makes no difference. Doing two things simultaneously drops your IQ by 10 points. Work on one thing at a time: you’ll be smarter, happier and solve more problems more quickly.

This article was published in MPA Magazine, September 2012

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