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Why Sleeping on a Difficult Problem Helps You Get the Answer

Why Sleeping on a Difficult Problem Helps You Get the Answer

We’ve all been faced with challenges and difficult choices. It can be tempting to agonize over the best response or obsess over a solution, but even with your best effort, you may not be able decide what to do.

The more you think about your problem, the more difficult it becomes to get the answer. You may feel frustrated as your desire to resolve the issue grows. Impatience sets in, and your brain gets more stuck than ever.

Soon you’re tired, cranky, and mentally exhausted because your mind has been running in circles all day. But sometimes the solution is as simple as sleeping on the problem.

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Stop spinning your wheels and go to sleep

In periods of high stress, taking a rest may be the the furthest thing from your mind, but it might be the best thing for you. If you allow yourself to sleep on the issue, the answer will come to you.

A study in Memory and Cognition found that people perform problem-solving tasks more effectively after sleep.[1] The effectiveness of sleep in the problem solving equation may be related to a psychological concept called the “Incubation Effect.” The Incubation Effect, put forth by Graham Wallas in 1926, suggests that the brain is more effective at overcoming obstacles when it is given time to rest.[2]

If you have ever been unable to produce an answer to a question that you should know only have the answer pop into your head in the middle of the night, you have experienced the Incubation Effect firsthand.

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Psychologists aren’t sure if this happens because the brain is less distracted during sleep, or if the subconscious continues to work on the problem even when you aren’t consciously processing through it. Either way, science supports sleeping to solve complex problems.

Dreams will secretly inspire you

Some of the greatest scientific discoveries and artistic and literary masterpieces were inspired by dreams. For example, Otto Loewi discovered that nerve impulses were caused by chemicals during a series of dreams.[3]

When you sleep, your brain is able to process and consolidate the experiences you had when you were awake. Sleeping after you learn something new helps your brain encode the new information into your long-term memory.[4]

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Beyond just processing information, certain phases of the sleep cycle are essential for problem solving. REM sleep stimulates associative networks to unlock new potential connections and solutions that may have gone unnoticed during your waking hours.[5]

Focusing on a problem intently can keep you from solving it

Your brain operates in two distinct modes: focused and diffused mode. Focused mode is the state in which you are actively concentrating on stimuli.[6] When you’re intent on finding an answer, your mind stays in focused mode. This can cause you to get tunnel vision, and it can make it impossible to think outside the box.

The phenomenon known as the Einstellung Effect can also prevent you from finding novel solutions to complex problems.[7] The Einstellung Effect arises when the information that you already know blocks your creativity and impedes innovation. As you gain experience with a certain type of problem, your brain attempts to run on autopilot instead of critically analyzing the issue.

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When you get frustrated, it’s time to take a break

If you’re feeling stuck, it’s best to step back and take a break. Your frustration will only serve to block your ability to find a solution or make a decision. Allow yourself a solid night of sleep before you make your choice or attempt to solve your problem.

You’ll be amazed at how capable your brain is when you let it to work as it was meant to work. When you’ve hit a wall in your problem-solving process, stop thinking about it, and get some sleep.

It may be difficult to let the issue go, but you have everything you need within yourself already. You only need to give your mind the chance to work things out for you. Check out this article to fall asleep faster: 10 Simple Hacks To Fall Asleep In 30 Seconds, Backed By Science

Featured photo credit: Picjumbo via picjumbo.com

Reference

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Brian Lee

Chief of Product Management at Lifehack

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Last Updated on September 11, 2019

Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work (And How to Change That)

Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work (And How to Change That)

How often do you feel overwhelmed and disorganized in life, whether at work or home? We all seem to struggle with time management in some area of our life; one of the most common phrases besides “I love you” is “I don’t have time”. Everyone suggests working from a to-do list to start getting your life more organized, but why do these lists also have a negative connotation to them?

Let’s say you have a strong desire to turn this situation around with all your good intentions—you may then take out a piece of paper and pen to start tackling this intangible mess with a to-do list. What usually happens, is that you either get so overwhelmed seeing everything on your list, which leaves you feeling worse than you did before, or you make the list but are completely stuck on how to execute it effectively.

To-do lists can work for you, but if you are not using them effectively, they can actually leave you feeling more disillusioned and stressed than you did before. Think of a filing system: the concept is good, but if you merely file papers away with no structure or system, the filing system will have an adverse effect. It’s the same with to-do lists—you can put one together, but if you don’t do it right, it is a fruitless exercise.

Why Some People Find That General To-Do Lists Don’t Work?

Most people find that general to-do lists don’t work because:

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  • They get so overwhelmed just by looking at all the things they need to do.
  • They don’t know how to prioritize the items on list.
  • They feel that they are continuously adding to their list but not reducing it.
  • There’s a sense of confusion seeing home tasks mixed with work tasks.

Benefits of Using a To-Do List

However, there are many advantages working from a to-do list:

  • You have clarity on what you need to get done.
  • You will feel less stressed because all your ‘to do’s are on paper and out of your mind.
  • It helps you to prioritize your actions.
  • You don’t overlook so many tasks and forget anything.
  • You feel more organized.
  • It helps you with planning.

4 Golden Rules to Make a To-Do List Work

Here are my golden rules for making a “to-do” list work:

1. Categorize

Studies have shown that your brain gets overwhelmed when it sees a list of 7 or 8 options; it wants to shut down.[1] For this reason, you need to work from different lists. Separate them into different categories and don’t have more than 7 or 8 tasks on each one.

It might work well for you to have a “project” list, a “follow-up” list, and a “don’t forget” list; you will know what will work best for you, as these titles will be different for everybody.

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2. Add Estimations

You don’t merely need to know what has to be done, but how long it will take as well in order to plan effectively.

Imagine on your list you have one task that will take 30 minutes, another that could take 1 hour, and another that could take 4 hours. You need to know the moment you look at the task, otherwise you undermine your planning, so add an extra column to your list and include your estimation of how long you think the task will take, and be realistic!

Tip: If you find it a challenge to estimate accurately, then start by building this skill on a daily basis. Estimate how long it will take to get ready, cook dinner, go for a walk, etc., and then compare this to the actual time it took you. You will start to get more accurate in your estimations.

3. Prioritize

To effectively select what you should work on, you need to take into consideration: priority, sequence and estimated time. Add another column to your list for priority. Divide your tasks into four categories:

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  • Important and urgent
  • Not urgent but important
  • Not important but urgent
  • Not important or urgent

You want to work on tasks that are urgent and important of course, but also, select some tasks that are important and not urgent. Why? Because these tasks are normally related to long-term goals, and when you only work on tasks that are urgent and important, you’ll feel like your day is spent putting out fires. You’ll end up neglecting other important areas which most often end up having negative consequences.

Most of your time should be spent on the first two categories.

4.  Review

To make this list work effectively for you, it needs to become a daily tool that you use to manage your time and you review it regularly. There is no point in only having the list to record everything that you need to do, but you don’t utilize it as part of your bigger time management plan.

For example: At the end of every week, review the list and use it to plan the week ahead. Select what you want to work on taking into consideration priority, time and sequence and then schedule these items into your calendar. Golden rule in planning: don’t schedule more than 75% of your time.

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Bottom Line

So grab a pen and paper and give yourself the gift of a calm and clear mind by unloading everything in there and onto a list as now, you have all the tools you need for it to work. Knowledge is useless unless it is applied—how badly do you want more time?

To your success!

More to Help You Achieve More in Less Time

Featured photo credit: Emma Matthews via unsplash.com

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