Take a break to solve problems

Walk-away To Solve Your Big Problems

If you’re like most people, there’s always too much to do and never enough time to get everything done.  In a startup or even a household with a young family, you feel compelled to spend 18 hours a day working so you can move forward towards a better life.  But are you synchronizing your tasks with your daily energy cycle?

Are you a morning person who prefers deep thinking and completing tough tasks first thing in the day?  Or perhaps you’re a night owl and prefers evenings to tackle challenging problems.

Regardless, you have different energy “highs” and “lows” throughout your day.  This daily cycle is called the human ultradian rhythm which is part of the Biology field called Chronobiology.  The cycles last 90-120 minutes in duration and occur throughout the 24-hour day.  You’re probably most familiar with the ultradian rhythm from hearing about Rapid Eye Movement (“REM”) sleep.  During the hours you’re awake, the equivalent is called daydreaming.

I’ve found I’m more effective at tackling tough mental (technical) challenges, i.e. app development, in the mornings.  Late-afternoons and early evenings are also fairly productive too.  However, as my energy cycle starts to deteriorate during other parts of the day, I find my “creative thinking” starts to increase.  I attribute this increase to the daydreaming part of the cycle where my mind starts to wander and explore new ideas more openly.  So if I need to do some creative activities like brainstorming on business development or ad/marketing ideas, I’ll try to do those during this time.

If you’re interested in some strategies to better manage your “highs and lows”, check out this Medium article by Brad Buzzard.

Switching gears to a related topic, let’s discuss a unique scenario that can disrupt your natural energy cycle.  Creating software is a rewarding but challenging job.  While there’s a fair amount of creativity on how to solve a problem with software, at the end of the day, your code works or it doesn’t.  If you’re new to developing software, know you’ll have a few big challenges where your code won’t work and you’ll spend hours trying to figure it out.  You’ll go so deep into thinking about it the hours will fly by – and you’ll think you don’t have much progress to show for it.  Except that you’ll have tried different things, analyzed different things and tested different things.  This means you’ve built deeper knowledge of how your software really behaves.  That’s forward progress.

After many hours of deep focus on resolving your code problem, you may find you’re getting irritated (“the code should just work”) and tired.  This is when you walk away from writing code.  Do something else completely different, ideally not work related.  Go for a walk/run, grab some food, etc.  Since you’ve probably spent the better part of a day on the issue, it’s probably good to call it a day and sleep on the problem.

Walking away may seem like you’re not committed to fixing the problem.  But by taking your mind off the problem (a little anyway) and sleeping on it, you’re not only letting your brain rest but also letting it work on the problem subconsciously.  Chances are good that the next day you will look at the problem with a slightly different perspective.  And chances are you’ll solve the problem in short order.

Over the years, I’ve talked to many software developers who have experienced this scenario where they’ve slept on a problem.  The next day they fairly quickly had a solution in place.  I personally have experienced this.  Waking up, tackling the issue with  a “fresh look” has been paid off multiple times.

Two additional comments.  First, these types of big problems don’t occur every day.  You’ll undoubtedly have problems to address every day, but they shouldn’t always be these “big ones”.  If they are, you may want to step back and see if you have the necessary skills for the work you’re doing.  You may need to reach out for help.  Secondly, this approach to “sleep on it” works beyond software development.  I’ve had some challenges on how to engage with certain Customer segments (i.e. direct vs indirect).  After doing some research to solve the problem and becoming “mentally saturated”, sleeping on it helped me find a solution.

If you weren’t aware before, hopefully now you see we all have an energy rhythm.  Understanding it can help us be more productive during the day.  However, sometimes a really tough problem hits us and we spend many hours straight out finding a solution.  Going non-stop for hours on end and focusing all our available mental capacity to solve a problem can be counter-productive.  Walking away, doing something unrelated to the problem or sleeping on it will make you a more effective person and help you achieve your goals.

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