Three Levels of Intervention to Get Unstuck

Image of half of pyramid lying on its side, split into 3 layers in three shades of teal

There are only three basic cognitive obstacles that can stop your thinking in its tracks: blankness, overload, and conflict—or some combination of the three.

Level 1 Intervention: The 3-Minute Solution

When you first notice you're stuck, try "thinking on paper" for three minutes. This is the general-purpose mental accelerator. At the end of the three minutes, you will know better what the obstacle is and how big it is. That's because one of three things will have happened:

  1. you have solved your problem (no more obstacle)
  2. you are deep into a productive thinking-on-paper process and want to continue (no more obstacle)
  3. you are still having trouble

And if you are still having trouble, the last three minutes will have been excruciating. You now know how big the obstacle is: it is at least a second-level obstacle that can't be overcome in three minutes.

And you can now identify exactly what the obstacle is. Just ask yourself, "What do I feel?" Having made yourself fail for three minutes, you will have strong negative feelings about the process. They may be cognitive feelings (blankness, overload, conflict, confusion). They may be physical (tense, tired). They may be emotional (anger, sadness, fear).

Level 2 Intervention: The 10-Minute Solution

What should you do now? If it's worth it—if you think you need to persevere—you should now try a ten-minute solution specific to the particular obstacle indicated by your negative feeling. All the tactics at the second level take about ten minutes. Three minutes weren't enough—ten minutes is the next biggest unit of mental effort to apply to overcoming the obstacle.

If the problem is physical, the ten-minute specific solution may be a brisk walk or a short nap. If it's emotional, the ten-minute specific solution is introspection. If it's cognitive, you need one of my second-level thinking tactics:

  • Overload: Make a list—get it on paper
  • Conflict: Complain about the conflict—give contrary motivation a fair hearing
  • Blankness: Warm up your related knowledge with patsy questions or brainstorming
  • Confusion (a combo of all three): Use three passes to lay out what you know and don't know, challenge thoughts, identify next steps

The large majority of thinking obstacles can be overcome with these specific second-level tactics. At the end of the ten minutes, you will again be in one of three states:

  1. you have solved your problem (no more obstacle)
  2. you are deep into a productive thinking-on-paper process and want to continue (no more obstacle)
  3. you are still having trouble

Level 3 Intervention: The 30-Minute Solution

If you are still having trouble, you are facing a third-level obstacle. You need to tailor a solution to your particular problem and you need to budget 30 minutes to figure out what that tailored solution will be. Again—this is only if overcoming that obstacle is worth the time investment of 30 minutes now.

The way you tailor a solution to your particular problem is first to go to the "meta level" to understand better what's happening, and why your first 13 minutes of effort got you nowhere.

At this level, the basic culprit is always conflict—a conflict that is too deep to resolve in 13 minutes with the simpler tools. Conflict can manifest itself in many different ways. You get clarity on the underlying conflict by thinking at the meta level. You reflect on what you've been trying and why it didn't work.

Sometimes, when you think at the meta level, you get enough clarity about the conflict that you can resolve it immediately. Usually you don't. But what you can always do in 30 minutes is become clearer on the general kind of problem and devise a good next step to take that  will help you eventually resolve the issue.

You Can Overcome Every Mental Obstacle

The point here is: no mental obstacle warrants more than 43 minutes of thinking to troubleshoot it. None. Nada. Try the three-minute approach. If that doesn't work, try the ten-minute approach. If that doesn't work, and it's really important, use the 30-minute approach. By the end of that time, you should either have overcome the obstacle or figured out a good next step.

Lots of questions warrant more than 43 minutes of thinking. I routinely put in two hours a day of continuous thinking on my projects. But that is thinking that flows. I continuously think on paper, and when I hit an obstacle, I use a tactic to overcome it and get back into the thinking groove. The vast majority of the time, a three-minute or ten-minute tactic is all I or anyone needs to keep thinking flowing.

So, when trying to decide what tactic to use when you hit a stumbling block, think 3/10/30:

  • 3 minutes of thinking on paper as a general solution
  • 10 minutes for an obstacle-specific tool
  • 30 minutes to think at the meta level to find a good next step
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