Dan Pink brought this to my attention in a recent blog post headlined “3 tricks for solving problems faster and better”. Dan leads with the thought that it’s easier to come up with an idea for someone else, than it is for ourselves to solve a problem.
This has come out from recent research by Evan Polman of NYU and Kyle J. Emich of Cornell where in three sets of experiments they found that when subjects solved problems on behalf of others, they produced faster and more creative solutions than if they did so solving the very same problem.Polman and Emich say the principle at work is something called “construal-level theory,” which in simple terms means that we think in more abstract terms about distant problems (or problems belonging to distant people) — and thinking at a more abstract level produces more creative solutions.
Dan goes on to suggest that given we’re often more creative solving someone else’s problems what strategies can we do to more effectively solve our own? Here Dan suggests three ideas:
1. Trade problems with someone. When you get stuck, stop hammering away at the problem and find a colleague to swap with.
2. Solve problems on behalf of someone else. Create some psychological distance from your project by pretending that you’re doing it on behalf of someone else. Use your imagination here: the “other person” could be the woman across the hall, a relative, or a stranger halfway across the world. The farther away, the better.
3. Put some distance between yourself and your project. Writers know something magical happens when you put your manuscript away in a drawer. When you come back to it a week or a month or six months later, you have a fresher, more creative perspective on the work. When you can, build some slack into your deadlines and try putting your work out of sight for as long as you can manage.