I’ve always been a great admirer of Richard Feynman. Too me, his intelligence combined with his ability to explain even the most complicated facts in easy-to-grasp words is unparalleled.
When he was asked what his recipe for solving problems was, he gave the following advice, which has become known as the “Feynman approach to problem solving”:
1. Define the problem.
2. Sit down and think hard about the problem.
3. Write down the solution.
This is a good example of why I like him so much: he was a joker, a prankster, a guy who never took himself and life too seriously.
Alas, according to what we know about how our brain works, his advice doesn’t work, at least not for really hard problems.
While focusing on the topic and tormenting your brains works for many problems (logic problems, like solving typical math problems or Sudokus), solving hard problems requires just the opposite: complete detachment from the problem.
The reason for this counterintuitive approach is that the part of our brain that solves hard problems (the creative part) is not only slow, but also works asynchronously. In fact, thinking hard about a problem is more than useless: it actually disturbs the the creative part and often prevents it from doing its job.
Does this mean you shouldn’t think about the problem at all? By no means! You should try to gather all kinds of information and facts about a problem, without paying attention to possible solutions. Just load your brains with information and than get away from the problem. Go for a walk, take a nap, or have a beer. Don’t stare at the screen for hours. Relax, even if it is hard. I know, this is the hardest part about solving hard problems.