I can’t tell you how many times it’s happened to me. I start dealing with some horribly complex process, only to find it lasting hours or days. Worse yet, at some point along the way, I find myself so overwhelmed, that I may’ve been doing more to harm what I was trying to accomplish, than to help it.
My primary line of work has been software development, but a part of that job is dealing with problems that occur when the software doesn’t work properly, or folks misuse or abuse it.
Since most of the stuff I’ve been involved in is largely data-centric, when that happens, actions must be taken to correct any issues that may occur in that data.
So on top of potentially writing exceptionally complex algorithms (including, but certainly not limited to, structured query language stored procedures and ad hoc queries), there are times when I’ve been responsible first for identifying issues with code or information, then fixing those issues.
All this says nothing about having to sit down and think out new, often mind-bending processes, and developing methodologies for their implementation.
You can imagine being about fifty feet under the surface in such an endeavor, and going fuzzy-headed.
Along the way, I learned something exceptionally valuable. It started with walking away from the workplace at the end of the day. I realized that my brain continued to work on problems long after I had bailed out of the office after a tough shift.
Oftentimes, at some entirely unexpected point, I would have what many refer to as an “Ah-ha moment.”
Put simply, I would leave my desk defeated, go home, and at some juncture, I would realize something about the issue upon which I had been working, that totally changed its character.
There were literally times when I spent hours or again even days working on something, only to come to the solution when I wasn’t even supposed to be thinking about it.
With this came multiple problems. To begin with, since I spent typically at least eight hours sitting at my desk, it might take that long before I left and was able to free my mind from the clutter that kept me from a potential resolution.
Another issue was that for all of that time, the pressure was building. That meant I would sit there, becoming more and more tense and concerned for however long it took me to figure out a given conundrum. Only decompressing at the end of a potentially long day.
I took breaks, but generally they were quick and packed with some activity, like going to the restroom or making coffee. That helped some, but it wasn’t until I began to take time to intentionally walk away from a given puzzle, that I really started to see benefits.
Even more, when I got out of the office and walked around outside, the small amount of exercise and a little bit of unrestricted breathing really helped.
I would get out, walk around for ten or fifteen minutes and put the bugbear on the back burner, as it were.
It’s not fair to say every time I did that, I immediately came up with some revelatory conclusion, or solved world hunger. Even when that wasn’t true though, I got immense benefit out of the decision.
If it did no other thing—and you may trust that often it did have other benefits—it made it so I was looking at the problem with relatively fresh eyes.
There’re times when you’re dealing with something that must be handled contiguously. For those times, I’ve often had to create what amounted to a “map” to keep track of what I had and hadn’t yet managed to tackle.
Even then, I was still generally in much better shape after stepping away from what I was dealing with, than if I had continued through an extended period.
So successful has this approach been for me that, not caring what others (even bosses) thought of my taking time to leave my work area, I’ve been prone to do so. In the end, it generally worked much better for them than any of them probably were aware.
I get that there’re positions where it’s difficult or even impossible to take this approach, and I’m genuinely sorry for those working in such jobs when that’s the case.
To date, I’ve never found myself in a place where it wasn’t possible to take the approach stated. I count myself blessed beyond measure this is the case.
Working from home more recently, this has been, believe it or not, a more difficult thing. The reason being that my son was not allowed to go to school or daycare in recent months. Now that he’s attending classes regularly again, things should become relatively simple.
The only way you’re going to find out if this idea works for you, is to try it. My recommendation is, even if it doesn’t clear your head and allow you to better focus on the problems you’re facing—a thing that would surprise me greatly—it should give you the opportunity to refresh yourself somewhat, making it worth your while, all other things considered.
By the way, this is also true for me when it comes to taking lunch or not doing so. I find that I’m almost invariably better off doing it, because it allows me to break free from those things that are hounding me for long enough to eat and think. In fact, when in a workplace, I usually end up not just stepping away from my desk for lunch, but leaving the building.
So, maybe it’s not the total ticket to success when dealing with complex issues. Maybe others can function unerringly without needing to step out, but for me it’s been an invaluable tool in my toolbox. If you find issues at work or in your personal life are leaving you drained and feeling like a failure my suggestion is, for just a while, walk away.
Thanks for reading, and may your time be good.