Talk to yourself to solve problems
June 11, 2009
I’m a programmer and perhaps even a nerd, and as such I tend to focus on learning new tools, languages, patterns and other more technical details all the time. But at the core of my job is having good general problem-solving skills and these rarely get as much focus as cool demo webcasts of products to come etc. It’s just like school where you tried to learn facts, but never really learned how to learn.
I guess I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but reading the excellent book Pragmatic Thinking & Learning: Refactor Your Wetware by Andy Hunt made me understand it at a much deeper level. Thinking and understanding aren’t the same as you’ll see.
The conclusion I reached was something that I’ve been iterating in my mind over and over during the last year: you need to learn how to communicate with yourself. Communicating with others is more visible and a highly sought after skill because it shows that you’re not a introvert geek, but being able to communicate with yourself is something that I think we all should strive for as well.
What really snapped my head into place was a bug I had been trying to solve for a few days. Yes a few days, that’s how long I was stuck on this little sucker. Just before going home on the second day, I started thinking about self communication and opened up a text editor and described the problem to myself as detailed as I could. Then I read through it and huzzah, the bug was solved within minutes. It was super simple, but I had spent the two days being stuck in a mental rut that I couldn’t escape as long as I only tried to code myself out of the problem.
The secret is the action of putting what you think about into concrete, actual words. This process switches your brain into another mode, makes you think about it a little differently and activates reflection on this subject in your mind which can go on unnoticed for weeks in your subconscious. You may believe that just thinking about the problem is enough, since you feel that you already know all you need to know. But that is a mistake. Expressing the problems differently is key to developing a holistic understanding, to start seeing patterns, to connect to the knowledge you have about the subject through different mental paths. The way I see it there are many clues in society that point to the benefit of this, such as the catholic confessions, prayer, psychotherapy, rubber ducking, letter writing, keeping a diary and so on.
So the next step for you, dear nerd, is to fire up a text editor or open a notebook and describe any problem you haven’t been able to solve for a while to yourself. It may be related to coding, work or even your personal life. Then you can throw it away, you’ve probably already benefitted from it. Do this over and over, perhaps through a simple exercise called morning pages, and you’ll start understanding the mechanics that are you and your mind and what you need to do to continually improve yourself.
It has done wonders for me anyway.