What to do when you're stuck

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. Running around the same track won't change the scenery; it will just wear you out. Those of us with a strong work ethic find this very difficult. So just tell yourself that stopping is work too - because it is. 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. Many of my best ideas and solutions came while I was driving home from the office. Go to the gym (with a notepad!) Exercise brings a rush of oxygen into the brain which definitely helps. If that's impossible or too time consuming, walk the dog. Walk the halls. Just cross your office and look out of the window. Even the slightest physical movement can jolt you out of the mental rut in which you are stuck.

If you work from home, put in a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher. 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. It is virtually impossible to do this in a dialogue with yourself but inevitable if you are trying to explain your topic to someone else. I usually find that the very act of expressing what the problem is changes it.

Ask for help

Don't expect a solution. That isn't the way that problem solving works. 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. I think of problem solving as somewhat akin to a pinball machine: You need to bounce off a number of different ideas before you can score.

Go to sleep

My father-in-law has been known to solve equations in his sleep. I've untangled anagrams. 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.

Remember

Don't panic. Remember: You've been here before. High achievers easily lose sight of the hurdles they've already overcome: Once cleared, usually forgotten. But confidence is not a requirement for success; it is the product of success. 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.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    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 www.MHeffernan.com.

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