Separation: It’s good for problem solving

It turns out that the advice Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) gave Bob Wiley (Bill Murray) in the 1991 hit movie “What about Bob?” was more than the premise of a funny movie. In the comedy, therapist Dr. Marvin tells patient Bob Wiley to “take a vacation from his problems”.

And sure enough while on vacation Wiley finds the answers to his greatest problems.

What about BobWe have all been stumped by a problem at work that seemingly has no answer to it.  In that moment we conclude that we have approached it from every angle, and yet there is no apparent solution.

During those pressure cooker moments, we find ourselves in the weeds – no longer seeing the forest through the trees.  Our minds become hyper focused on what’s in front of us and begin to shut down.  We tell ourselves, “I will just work longer nights at the office…or…I can cut out my morning walks and come in earlier.”

More often than not, this is the wrong approach.

Our professional lives are routinely interrupted by extraordinary challenges; those by which we no longer see light at the end of the tunnel.  It seems counter-intuitive but this is when you should create space and distance yourself from the problem.  Don’t take it from me, take it from NASA.

In 1993 NASA suffered extra pressure and great stress when the Hubble Space Telescope broke down.  They faced a daunting task of figuring out how to go up in space and fix the distorted mirror inside the telescope.  For months the brightest minds in NASA couldn’t identify a solution.

Then one day NASA engineer, Jim Crocker, was taking a shower in a hotel and noticed how the shower head was mounted on adjustable rods with folding arms.  Eureka!  The answer did not appear while working late hours in the lab.  It occurred when Jim was in the shower on vacation, when he created space (no pun intended) from the perplexity of his problem.

Why does creating space work?

Your brain is like any muscle in your body.  Imagine lifting weights multiple times per week but only on biceps.  Doing so will surely strain and fatigue those muscles.  Thus, when you are consumed by constantly tackling the same challenge at work, you actually lose mental energy needed to identify solutions.  This is when it’s time to create space!

Let me be perfectly clear.  I am not suggesting you kick the can down the road and embrace avoidance. That will simply create additional problems. But like Bob Wiley, or Jim Crocker, you may find answers to your greatest problem when you take a vacation from the problem.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below as I learn just as much from you as you do from me.

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