I talk a lot about having to put thought into things. I even have a term for it: “Stare at the wall mode”. (You’ve probably heard me use this term before on this blog.) This is when you are wrestling with something in your mind and are working on trying to solve a problem or make a decision. Over the years I’ve come to realize there are different strategies for thinking. There are various types of “thinking” processes and each of these has tactics and mechanisms for maximum effectiveness.
When I talk about “staring at the wall”, what I’m talking about is “Deep Analysis”. This is where things need to be quiet and distraction-free. Since that’s frequently not possible in an office setting, here is where noise-canceling headphones and turning off your email and IM can help. This is also called “getting in the zone” so you might need to block off a time on your calendar so you don’t get interrupted with a meeting request at the same time. I have taken to doing this, especially during work-from-home COVID quarantine, where I find 30-60 minute blocks of time throughout the week and put it on my calendar as an “Important meeting” or whatever.
Being deep in thought, in the zone, is the useful first step and what I most commonly use. Even writing these blog posts is a good example. I will usually have the whole outline of the post figured out in my mind before I start writing, and frequently have even narrated most of the writing with my inner monologue. The same with creating presentations, authoring plans and documents, mapping out logic flows or software architectures, and even creating sprint backlogs. But this only works when you have that “deep thought” because it can be easy to either get knocked out of the zone, and lose it all, or be distracted and unable to get into the zone, and thus never be able to have the concentration to create these outlines and structures in your mind.
So “staring at the wall” works if you know what you are trying to do but just need to get there. For example, “I need to create a sprint backlog that gets us to this goal”. But what if you instead are thinking about a different problem, more akin to, “What is the solution we need to build to get us to this goal?” For me, there is another type of thought process that is more akin to the “sudden burst of insight”. Instead of “stare at the wall”, this is what I call trying to “solve an unsolvable problem”. For this type of thinking, the ideas frequently come to me in unexpected ways. This is where I very often get my best ideas driving in a car, or taking a walk, or making a cup of coffee. Putting aside time to put on some headphones for instrumental music and going for a walk, and working a problem in your mind, can help get those creative juices flowing and lead you to those “sudden bursts of insight”.
There is a third thought pattern here that I think is important, and bears mentioning. Interestingly, it was reading a book by Piers Anthony that helped me understand this one. This is what I call “going in a circle”, which is realization and acceptance. What I’ve found is frequently I would be working on a problem, and would keep coming back to the same answer. And no matter how much I tried to approach the problem from different directions or think about it in different ways, I kept ending up back at the same answer. I finally learned that when you find yourself in this place, then eventually you have to stop wasting time trying to find some magic solution and just accept the answer and move forward. Something like realizing your sprint is going to be late, or there’s no way to recover that lost data, or that you are going to disappoint a customer. You need to learn to recognize when you are pondering a problem, and the answer you keep coming up with is the answer, no matter how much you don’t want it to be.
Problem-solving and decision-making are key skills for anyone, and especially so for people in leadership roles. Learning to be efficient with your thought processes can be incredibly useful, given that time will always be something for which you are in short supply. So knowing enough about yourself that you can maximize your productivity and minimize the time needed to solve problems and make decisions will make you a more effective leader.
(Incidentally, the book I am referring to is On a Pale Horse.)