Friday, February 3, 2012

What to do when you're stuck

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CBS News
February 2, 2012 7:41 AM
By Margaret Heffernan

Leaders always face difficult, apparently intransigent problems. You can look on the bright side and appreciate that this pain always represents learning. But the reality is that, all too often, getting stuck is frightening. Here are some ways to get un-stuck:

Stop working
The natural tendency, when up against a tough problem, is to keep working at it. And, up to a point, that's what you should and must do. But we all reach a moment of diminishing returns, where we are retracing the same old thought lines, beating our heads against the same brick walls. At those moments, it's crucial to stop. … To find new approaches means you have to do something new too.

Do something completely different
Codebreakers will tell you that often the best way to solve a problem is to look away from it. … Exercise brings a rush of oxygen into the brain which definitely helps. … Even the slightest physical movement can jolt you out of the mental rut in which you are stuck.

… Don't start something that takes time - that's displacement activity. Just choose a simple enough task that will shift your thinking while you do it.

Have a conversation (not a meeting)
Conversations about the area you're working in will force you to frame the subject, to define and articulate exactly what it is you are working on. The very act of articulating it may help you to see it differently or to define it for yourself more clearly. …

Ask for help
Don't expect a solution. … Instead, discussing a range of approaches may spark a chain reaction that eventually leads you to see the solution - or at least part of it….

Go to sleep
… I know so many people who have had great ideas in their sleep that now, if I'm working on something particularly intractable, I will deliberately think about it just before I doze off. I want my mind to work on it. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't, of course. But even if I don't have a revelation, the next morning I'm alert and ready to try again.

Don't panic. Remember: You've been here before. … So don't forget that you already have those successes under your belt. You've confronted horrible obstacles before and cleared them. That means you're very likely to be able to do so this time. As long as you keep your nerve and keep going.

© 2012 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.
  • Margaret Heffernan Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on
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