Do you feel that you are too busy to think at work? I often do and I’m sure if you had time to think about it you would agree that you were too. It seems that between meetings with potential clients (yes we tend to think of the other departments within our organization who use our services as clients) meetings with existing clients, team meetings, department meetings, and other staff meetings that some days I’m going from one meeting to another. With the introduction of laptop computers that you could carry around with you several years ago and more recent mobile devices, there is an expectation that you are available to be interrupted at any time.
Being busy is good in that it makes the day go fast. On the other hand being constantly on the go can quickly become mentally exhausting. The human brain wasn’t meant to be constantly on the go like that. It needs time to ‘digest’ the information that it has received, categorize it and store it. It also needs time to analyze problems, pull together various facts and make correlations that could lead to a potential solution. In effect, the human brain is a remarkable computer, a computer that is in a way self-programming. But just like a physical computer needs time to be programmed, your brain needs time to think about problems, to consider different possible solutions and evaluate these solutions to come up with a recommended plan of action. If you are constantly keeping it busy doing other things, it really doesn’t have time to do any deep thinking.
Consider: people often come up with some of their best ideas just as they are going to sleep or just as they wake up or perhaps even while they are driving to and from work? These are times when your brain is either in a more rested state or at least it is thinking about other things. In any case, it is not focused on a single seemingly unsolvable problem. I cannot count the number of times over the years of being a programmer that I’ve been stuck on a problem and the more I tried to force myself to focus on just that one problem, the harder it became to come up with a solution. However if I walked away from the problem for a while, the solution would come to me. You say that perhaps your boss might get the impression that if you were just sitting back in your chair perhaps even with your eyes closed that you were either day-dreaming or sleeping. Ok, so what are some things that you can do to increase your thinking time and not appear like you are goofing off?
- Take a walk around the building or preferably around the block if you work in a city during lunch. Sometimes I use ‘walk’ time to listen to music because I work in the city and I do not find the street noises relaxing. For me that means either Mozart, Bach, or even some of the New Age composers like David Arkenstone. However, you might even try some of those environmental sounds CDs. Many times I’ve come back from a lunch walk with a potential solution to a problem that was bothering me all morning.
- Change your focus by working on a different task. Having two or three tasks that you can work between can be a great way to bust through those mental block times when you just cannot seem to figure something out. As a team lead, I often encourage my staff to work on a different problem for a few hours if they get stuck on one problem. Then when you come back to the original problem, your brain will feel refreshed and can perhaps look at the problem in a different way and ‘discover’ the solution.
- Talk to one of your co-workers about the problem. This is another ‘trick’ I’ve often found useful and now encourage my staff to do the same thing. It does not even mean that you necessarily expect the co-worker to solve the problem, although that would be a great benefit as well. Rather it seems to be something about just putting your thoughts together verbally while telling someone else about the problem that helps your brain reorganize the facts revealing the solution as you are talking.
- Most developers hate to document what they have been working on, but another way to get past a mental block on a problem is to stop working on the problem and start documenting your most recent work creating text that will either become part of the end-user documentation or the system documentation. This technique combines #2 and #3 above because while you are focused on a different task, documenting, you are talking about the problem using written text rather than verbal words.
- Some developers like to listen to music while they code. I have to admit that I fall into that category. I had friend back in my FoxPro days that use to say that the best programs were written at 120 dB. Ok, I’m not recommending that you blast your eardrums out. However, again I believe that this is just a way to ‘trick’ the brain into opening new creative pathways to problems because you don’t get so focused on a problem to the exclusion of all else that you actually stop thinking about alternatives.
- On the other hand, sometimes having just some quiet time to think about what is important in your current task, in your job, in your family, or in your life can stimulate new ideas. You might come up with a new process that will save time and/or money at work. You might start making plans where you want your career to be a year from now, five years from now, or even ten years from now. You might even think about a change in career or a relocation to a city that you always wanted to live in. For example, I often use quiet time to come up with concepts or program solutions and then use music while I develop out those concepts or solutions.
- Getting away from work at night and/or on weekends to do something totally different than what you do at work can reset your brain and improve your creativity. Find a hobby, sport, or activity that takes your mind off your regular work. Some of my friends go on hikes, or play sports, or go surfing, or garden, or cook. It actually doesn’t seem to matter so much what it is as long as you do something different from your normal work hours.
- Finally getting away from work for an extended time, one or even two weeks at a time is another great way to recharge your mind and put you in the frame of mind to return and tackle those tough issues again. I know that those times when I’ve tried to stay in touch with the office when I was supposed to be off on vacation time ending up feeling very unsatisfactory. It’s like being on call 24/7. It’s a recipe for burnout.
In summary, finding time to get away from your normal tasks whether to just think or sometimes to just think about nothing can be very helpful. Set aside some time each day to just relax and think. You may be amazed at how much more productive you can become.