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James Hong

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I think better when I'm not really thinking about it..

It has occured to me that a lot of the better thinking and better decisions I've made in the past happened when I wasn't concentrating on the problem. For instance, the idea to originally not host pictures on HOTorNOT but instead send people to Geocities and then have users submit their image's URL (in order to avoid paying for bandwidth) was thought of while I was sitting in the drive thru line at In-N-Out Burger at 1am when I was supposed to be figuring out whether I wanted a single burger or a double double.

I also seem to have random thoughts about problems when I am talking to people, and something they say triggers thoughts in my head that may have very little to do with what they are talking about, but still.. some keyword they said triggers something in my brain.

I've always wondered if this is why I tend to be a bit A.D.D, because I do my best thinking this way rather than concentrating. Not sure if they are related, but it would explain a few things.

One time I was interviewing a guy for a job position, and he was close to the solution but for some reason couldn't get it. So after 10 minutes of frustratedly watching him almost getting it, I told him to stop and that I wanted to try an experiment. I aksed him to put the paper aside, and i asked him a series of random questions.. "what is your favorite fast food restaurant," "what is your favorite tv show", "what books have you read lately", and then i immediately told him to look at the problem again.. and within 10 seconds, he got it!

So I saw this journal of experimental social psychology abstract today and wondered if this was all related, and found it interesting.. Moral of the story is, when you have a really hard problem, do something else for a while.

Ap Dijksterhuis and Zeger van Olden
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, September 2006, Pages 627-631

This work compares conscious thought and unconscious thought in relation to
quality of choice. Earlier work has shown that people make better choices
after engaging in unconscious thought (i.e., unconscious activity during a
period of distraction) rather than in conscious thought. However, the
evidence was obtained for choices between hypothetical alternatives with
quality of choice operationalized normatively. As quality of decision is
essentially subjective, in the current experiment participants chose between
real objects with quality operationalized as post-choice satisfaction. In a
paradigm based on work by Wilson and colleagues, participants were briefly
presented with five art posters, and chose one either (a) immediately, (b)
after thorough conscious thinking about each poster, or (c) after a period
of distraction. Participants took their favorite poster home and were phoned
3-5 weeks later. As hypothesized, unconscious thinkers were more satisfied
with their choice than participants in the other two conditions.


Blogger A life worth living said...

Cool blog.

I've heard that while you sleep, your brain takes that day's important thoughts and stores it away, almost in a sort of library, organizing and categorizing things while you're not conscious. I wonder if this has anything to do with taking a break.

Maybe after a certain point while trying to figure something out, your brain becomes gridlocked. Then by relaxing or talking about stuff you know, your brain sort of goes on "idle" mode, allowing it to sort and categorize the mess of information you were working on.

I know as little as anyone about how it all works, but I just wonder if relaxing allows your brain to organize your thoughts, making things seem so clear after a short break.

It might also explain Google's break rooms and stuff! (well, I hear they have nice break rooms!)

11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's natural and normal for highly creative minds to have activated those parts of their brains for random insights at the most unrelated moments. Just don't forget to bring a notepad to write the insight down before you forget it because the hot chick you were talking to when the insight came distracted you...

2:09 PM  
Blogger John Ndege said...

Well, there is that old addage that your best thinking happens in the shower. Its true when you sit down and concentrate hard on a difficult problem, you can get lost in it. Thats why i recommend taking regular breaks at work? Say 10 every hour! lol

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is definitely true. In fact, I was read a book several years ago, "The Einstein Factor" by Win Wenger, that discussed some of the qualities of the world's greatest thinkers, and the moments in which they had their biggest breakthroughs.

They often occured when they were not super-focused on the problem. It's sort of like looking at the stars. They come into view only when you do NOT look directly at them!

Ravi in Seattle

9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A discussion about your blog post:

9:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This blog entry explains soooo much.

7:14 AM  
Blogger A life worth living said...

I was doing some research for a class I'm taking, and I thought of you when I read this:

Initial exposure to blurred or ambiguous stimuli interferes with accurate perception even after more and better information becomes available.

This effect has been demonstrated experimentally by projecting onto a screen pictures of common, everyday subjects such as a dog standing on grass, a fire hydrant, and an aerial view of a highway cloverleaf intersection.27 The initial projection was blurred in varying degrees, and the pictures were then brought into focus slowly to determine at what point test subjects could identify them correctly.

This experiment showed two things. First, those who started viewing the pictures when they were most out of focus had more difficulty identifying them when they became clearer than those who started viewing at a less blurred stage. In other words, the greater the initial blur, the clearer the picture had to be before people could recognize it. Second, the longer people were exposed to a blurred picture, the clearer the picture had to be before they could recognize it.

Taken from

Hence why taking breaks helps: You leave as the person who started with an incredibly blurred view and each time come back as the person with a somewhat less-blurred view, till you eventually see things clearly.

7:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James - I was just reading your blog and came across this post.

I'm a business owner of a startup tech company in Vancouver, BC, and an active member of hot or not.

Check out the book "Blink: The Power of Thinking Wihtout Thinking" by Malcolm Gladwell.

Fantastic book and worth the read.


3:30 PM  

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