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Stuck on a Problem? Here’s How to Get Going Again

Photo by Vicky Sim on Unsplash

Sometimes when we’ve been focusing on a problem for a while, we develop tunnel vision. We get stressed out and overwhelmed, which negatively impairs our thinking and creativity. We get stuck. We keep coming up with the same ideas that we’ve already tried or ruled out. How can a person get past this?

First of all, step away from the problem for at least 20 minutes. And when I say “step away from,” I mean mentally as well as physically. You haven’t stepped away from the problem if you move to a different room and continue to think about the same solutions you’ve been thinking about. Focus your attention on a completely different kind activity which will be engaging enough to keep you from continuing to ruminate on the problem. That’s going to be something different for each person. Some people might find relief in physical exercise. (Exercise, or simple movement like walking, has been shown to increase creativity, which may also help you when it comes to developing new solutions for a stubborn problem). Other people might turn to the TV or Facebook. My go-to is often a novel. Set a timer before you engage in your temporary activity so you don’t lose track of the problem issue and fail to return to it.

Skeptical about this? Herbert Benson and William Proctor wrote about this in 2003 and called this the “breakout principle.” In those 20 minutes away from the problem, the neurochemistry in your brain changes. Nitric oxide is released to relax the stressed out brain, making it possible for you to look at the problem with fresh eyes.


If you would like a new approach to solving that problematic issue you’ve been stuck on, Hal Gregerson lays out a different way to brainstorm using questions. He recommends finding a couple of people who haven’t been involved with the problem that is thwarting you and give them an overview lasting no more than 2 minutes. Tell them why you are stuck; that is, why the problem hasn’t already been solved, and what a solution to the problem would mean (why things would be better). Then, set a timer for 4 minutes and everyone starts asking questions, such as “what IS working? Why is it working?” And “What’s NOT working? And why?” Gregerson states, “The more surprising and provocative the questions are, the better.” Don’t be distressed if you don’t end up with a full page of questions; Gregerson says to aim for 15 so he’s not expecting a lot, either. One key during this brainstorming question is that everybody understands the time is for questions only. No one is to answer questions, comment on them, or say negative things about a question. Gregerson is writing about using this approach in a business setting, but I see that it can be helpful on the individual level, as well, even you are the only person asking questions. Those questions broaden the horizon and may spur you to see an angle or possibility you didn’t see before.


Sometimes when you are stuck in life, it can help to talk with a therapist who can help you see the situation with new eyes and help you find potential solutions that fit your needs and preferences. I offer a free 30-minute consultation at my Belton, MO office if you’d like to talk about how I can work with you on helping you move forward. Call or text me at (816) 226-4678.

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