I, like most people I know, get stuck all the time—stuck on thoughts, feelings, physical challenges, and creative projects. The first thing I do when I’m stuck is attempt to work through it: I try to unpack the thought, unwind the feeling, bust the plateau, or force the creative insight. Sometimes this works. Often it doesn’t.
When it doesn’t, the best thing I can do is step away. Yet it’s also the hardest. My brain, like most human brains, hates leaving things undone. I face a strong urge to lean in and continue picking at the problem. The effective approach, however, is basically the exact opposite: lean out and leave the problem, whatever it may be, alone.
Research from across fields shows that breakthroughs tend to occur not when you are working on the problem, but rather when you step away from it. This is precisely why we experience “aha” moments in the shower, during a walk, or while driving home from work. It’s also why some of the best physical feats happen after what seems like a too-long break. Just about every athlete has a story of an insane performance that occurred after a 10-day Hawaii vacation that included minimal, if any, training. (Exhibit A: Roger Bannister became the first person ever to run a mile in under 4-minutes after he stopped training for a while to go hiking with friends.)
The million dollar question, of course, is when to step back? The last thing you want to do is shut-down your computer or leave the gym when the breakthrough is coming in the next minute or the next set. Unfortunately, there is no uniform answer to this question, no device that you can wear on your wrist that says “step back, step back, your efforts are becoming futile!” All you can do is pay close attention during situations in which you are stuck. In what circumstances do you get unstuck? At what point does your trying become pointless?
For me, and I suspect for most people, the time to step away is when it feels like I’m straining very hard on something that, when I’m at my best, comes to me more fluidly and naturally. You can think of it as a spectrum: on one end is flow and fluidity, and on the other is extreme, facial muscles scrunched, bearing-down straining. The closer I get to the latter, the more likely I am to benefit from stepping away, even if I feel compelled to keep trying (and I almost always do).
It is true that sometimes you must keep grinding in order to breakthrough. But these instances are exceptions that prove the rule. What usually happens is the more you lean in, the more you wind up the problem—and wind up yourself too. It’s hard to step away when every cell in your body is telling you not to. But that’s usually a pretty good sign you should.