Monday, March 1, 2010

Brain Lock

We’ve all done it. Designing a project and not knowing how to solve a problem. I’ve been building with Lego for 25 years and I have experienced it many times. As a Mechanical Engineer, I have done it many times at work as well. Just last week, I was stuck on a problem for two days. Then 15 minutes before going home I had an idea. I jotted it down then came into work today and solved the problem in about thirty minutes. I was overjoyed. That got me thinking of ways that I have overcome brain lock, and I thought I would share some of them with you.

Brain Lock is the Engineer’s version of writer’s block. I have no training in the psychological happenings; I only know how I have dealt with it. For me, it usually happens when I have an idea that I have a bias toward. This means that I say “I want to use this piece” or “I want it to look exactly like this” or “I want this feature.” Then I spend lots of time thinking about it, but the first few ideas don’t work. Then I work on it more, but those ideas don’t work either, and a ruthless cycle begins.

It’s frustrating when you have sat at the Lego table for two hours and have nothing to show for it. For me, the first step in overcoming it is to recognize that I have brain lock. This may seem silly, but this is when the antidote needs to be administered. If you continue in the brain lock cycle and not knowing kick yourself out of it, the cycle will only last longer.

Here are some things that have helped me in the past:

-I talk to someone about the problem
This is good because it makes me explain what I am doing to someone who doesn’t know about what I am doing. It forces me to think about and verbalize the details, and sometimes while explaining the idea will strike. I often use my wife as a sounding board. She really couldn’t care less about most of my projects, but she usually will sit there with a glazed look on her face while I ramble.

-I think about it somewhere else.
I find that if I move to a different chair, go outside, or stand by a window I will think differently. You can exercise, take a shower, do anything; just go somewhere different.  I think we all can admit that we have had some really good ideas in the bathroom.

-I move on to something else
Completely stop thinking about the problem. Try working on a different part of the project. Let your brain relax.

-I brainstorm
This is my personal favorite. I do this a couple of different ways.

One way is to grab a notebook and a pencil and just draw the idea. Think of several different solutions and draw them. Don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how nice it looks; just get the idea down on paper. Cocktail napkins work great.

The other way is to build relentlessly. Even if you think it won’t work, try to build it anyway. Then when it doesn’t work, set it aside and don’t take it apart. Try to build it again, set it aside, etc. What you will find is that your mind works better when you see the problem and not just think about it. Your spatial imagination has limits and actually seeing the design not work will give you inspiration.

-I take a break
Simple enough. Walk away and don’t think about it for a while. Do something completely different. Trust me, the problem won’t go away so don’t worry about it.

-I look at something similar
I do this at work all the time. Walk away from the desk and go find something similar and look how they have solved the problem. I have a pile of about 20 mechanisms on my Lego table that I never take apart and I always find inspiration there.

These things work for me. Really the most important thing is to relax your mind and thoughts. A stressed mind is far less effective than a relaxed mind. And when you have those days when you have a million ideas and they all work, remember how you feel and how you are thinking. Then when you suffer from brain lock, try to get into that frame of mind again.

No comments:

Post a Comment