Tips from neuroscience to keep you focused on hard tasks
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• Be open to reconceptualizing problem structure. Often, the structure we invent doesn’t work for our problem and leads to dead ends. When stuck, we must be willing to reconceptualize a problem and look for new ways to address it.
In practice, returning to a hard task in this way comes with a ‘restart’ cost: we must spend time and mental effort getting back into our task set, rather than making progress. For this reason, it is important to create time and space for hard tasks.
For example, a hard task such as doing a geometry proof might involve a structured process of retrieving, selecting and checking a set of geometry facts and theorems. The better that the solver knows these facts, and the more effectively they devise an efficient plan to evaluate them, the more readily they will solve the proof. As they do more problems, the facts come to mind more easily, and they follow familiar plans to evaluate each. In general, we can get better at structuring hard problems with experience. This is one reason that practice makes us more efficient and successful at hard tasks, and that experts outperform novices. Finding work habits that encourage this process helps us to stay focused.
• Take breaks. It’s not helpful to insist on trying to get everything done at once, if it just isn’t working. It is important to take breaks from difficult work. This not only keeps the mental costs low, but might allow new concepts and structures to be considered. There is evidence that incubation of this kind helps problem solving.
• Interact with others. Just like taking a break, interacting with others can help us conceptualize a problem in new ways. Talking to people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and viewpoints that differ from our own can be a powerful way to break out of a rut and make progress, as well as get some perspective. Moreover, working with others whose company we enjoy makes hard work more fun.
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