Project Practitioners > The high project return on piddle-mode thinking and leisurely learning

The high project return on piddle-mode thinking and leisurely learning

By Cinda Voegtli

I woke up one morning a couple of weeks ago and went into a bad mood immediately.  My brain went right back to the gnarly work problem I had been thinking about the night before.  Big decisions looming.  Complex options, no clear path yet.  Why did this put me in a bad mood?  Problem-solving is part of our jobs!  I didn't figure it out until later that morning - and what I learned is the subject of this blog - because I think it matters for our sanity and our project problem-solving.

On this particular morning I went from barely awake to tied up in stress knots in short order.   I was tired of this problem, sick to death of it - but I didn't see the resolution.  That morning I reached the point of outright rebellion.  "I need to get to the office by around 9 this morning.  But I don't WANT to!   I am sick of working on this."  [Visualize the equivalent of a foot-stomping child.  Sad to say, that was me.]

This particular morning, I gave in.  (There are great advantages to living in Silicon Valley with massively flexible start times the norm.)    "FINE.  I'm going to stay home longer.  I'll just ignore this and do some things around the house for a while. HA. Take THAT, you stinkin' problem."  And that's what I did. 

I washed dishes.  I picked fruit off the citrus trees to take to the office. I paid some bills.  I did some picking up of teenager stuff scattered around the house.  And of course I stopped mentally gnawing at that pesky problem and let my brain disengage.  What a relief! 

And then, what a surprise.  Because within 20 minutes, I stopped in the middle of washing a pot and realized I had a new idea for resolving that awful work problem. 

It turns out my faithful brain was still cogitating on it.. but in a different and much more productive way.  Before I started piddling, in my decision-and-schedule-stressed mode I was essentially saying over and over,  "Brain!  You MUST solve this problem in the next 30 minutes!  Get to it!  I'm not getting up til we've figured this out!"  [Obsess obsess obsess.]  Well, sometimes such concentrated explicit thinking time works.  But sometimes, especially in times of stress, it doesn't.

What I realized anew from this little incident is that truly  - no matter how much we feel we've got to get done, right now!  all the decisions we've got to make, asap! - truly, we must allow ourselves time to really think.   We must acknowledge that the need is always going to be there, it's an important part of the work of the project - and we must get better at allowing  time for it.   We teach everyone to estimate their projects more accurately by being sure to include vacation time, meeting time, status reporting time.  Do we stop and consider how much thinking time we'll need?

Sometimes, yes, we need time for the close-the-door, don't-disturb-me, deeply-focused ruminating kind of thinking. Sometimes, though, what the brain needs is background piddle-mode thinking.  We all know that in a way -  we're familiar with getting a sudden insight while taking a shower or driving to work.  But until this big rebellion moment born of that morning's stress, I hadn't acknowledged that sometimes I might need to explicitly legislate some piddle-mode thinking, to finally get past a knotty problem.

I ended up spending 2 hours at home that morning, piddling around the house when part of me was screaming "You should be at WORK!"    But in reality, I was.  My brain was at work in the way I most needed it right then.  Within those two hours, I came up with a couple of new ideas for solving the problem and made some new connections that helped me see the possible decision path much more clearly.  

What about making time to learn about new ideas, skills, approaches, tools?  In that area, it didn't take a crisis for me to make time, but I did fall into a useful approach out of a minor rebellion.  At some point in my career, as the to-do list and hours kept mounting, I remember sitting in my office at 5:30 or 6 and saying "I want to be done.  Don't feel like starting anything else today."  But the other part of me was saying  "You can't go yet, you lightweight!  There's still important stuff to do!"  (Isn't there always?!)   In that case, I compromised.   I picked up several items from my towering one-day-I-need-to-read-this stack, packed up, and stopped at a coffee shop on the way home... and read for over an hour.  And learned some new things.  And thought about how to apply something I had just read to a situation at work.   And realized, this is actually "real work" that is worth my time - and regular time at that. 

I now do this "leisurely learning" about twice a week.  I finish stuff at my desk for the day, pick up a new pile, and head to a coffee shop or restaurant.  It may be magazines, it may be a book, it may be an article someone recommended to me, whatever strikes my mood.   I get some relaxed reading time, and I always learn something useful.  (Note:  I personally have chosen NOT to head home to do this reading; I know that once I hit the house something else would needed taking care of and the reading wouldn't happen. In a neutral venue, I actually feel like I'm treating myself to this time!   So I've found a natural way to make this learning time part of my work week.  I've legislated it into my schedule in a way that fits well and has held up beautifully as a regular and very important investment of my time.

The overall point of this whole post is a reminder for us to find ways to build this important thinking and learning time into our daily lives. Those lives are crazy with things to do, in a way that can threaten our ability to make clear decisions, handle difficult problems, and stay on top of the ongoing learning we need to do in order to thrive in our jobs. I vote for proactive approaches for making time in our schedules for thinking and learning! 

If you find yourself struggling to think through a difficult issue, or even get to the point of rebelling hard and "giving up" as I did ...I say go ahead and do it !    Give your brain some space to do its beautiful thing.   I vote for being open to the need of the moment  - to our addled brains telling us it's time to kick back for a little while and let it roam.  If you're not having time to read or otherwise expose yourself to ideas, practices, etc outside your own daily sphere, think about how to find some space for it.  I vote for finding ways to build leisurely learning into our weeks.   And very importantly - I say that all of us who are bosses of others should be encouraging our people, and really allowing them, to do the same!

What if you can't imagine how you or your team members could ever find time to do one or both of these things?  Well, I believe we should all be examining how we schedule our projects and our own commitments.   If we can schedule vacations and meeting overhead and all the rest into our project timelines, I say we should find ways to legislate and schedule this thinking and learning time too!    

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Great and insightful article. I once had a project to find out how people solve problems. I looked at many books and found almost nothing useful. Then I asked half a dozen successful problem solvers--4 in business and 2 university research professors. They all described a "ritual" like yours. One played tennis everyday at lunch--he lives in San Diego where that's possible. Another, used his commuting drive time. But everyone had a specific routine to do something else while their minds worked on the problem.

Well said! I often find myself stressing over how to stay ahead of the workload and in dire need of just such a respite. Thanks for your insight and article.

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I'm glad it resonated! As I said early in the post, I have at times felt weird for needing so many tips and tricks to stay sane. I did decide to just own it :-) but its always good to know I am not alone...

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