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How to Engineer More Epiphany Moments in Your Day-to-Day

Published 8/5/2019

Whether you're in a contributing role or you're a leader, you run into idea blocks. The moments when you get moments of epiphany can be rare. In today's episode, we're talking about understanding what we need to have in order to unlock those epiphany moments.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Where do great ideas come from? Whether you are an individual contributing role or a leader, as a developer, you've probably had moments of epiphany. Maybe it's a technical problem that you've been rolling over in your head for a while and you finally have some insight, or maybe it's a creative problem, or product problem, something that relies on human behavior. And you couldn't see the patterns before, but suddenly, somewhere, somehow, the connection is made. It's no surprise that these moments are incredibly valuable, but they also seem elusive. In today's episode, we're going to talk about how you might be able to engineer these moments into your daily life and work. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, and you're listening to Developer Tea. And my goal in this show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in your careers. If there's one thing that science has told us about moments of epiphany, it is that they don't happen when you want it to. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of problems that your brain is working on. At any given point in time, one is an analytical problem, something that requires a construction of a model in your mind, and you can analyze that model. You can think about things like math problems as analytical problems. The second kind of problem that your brain is actively working on at any given point in time is an insight problem. The difference between these is fairly simple. With an analytical problem given enough time and space, you will be able to solve it in somewhat of a linear fashion. Assuming you have sufficient domain knowledge about that particular analysis, all it requires is actually doing the work. Insight problems, on the other hand, seem to arise out of nowhere. This feeling of an idea hitting you on the head, a light bulb popping on over your head, or an idea coming to you seemingly out of thin air. These are all descriptions of insight problems. And very commonly, insights come to us when we least expect them, or perhaps when we intuitively least expect them, usually when we're resting or doing something unrelated to work. This isn't just a coincidence. Most of the time, this is part of the way our brains actually operate. We're going to take a moment to talk about today's sponsor, and then we're going to come back and talk about the underlying principle that you can use to hopefully engineer more aha moments in your own life and work. Git Prime has written a book that they are going to give you for free. There's a digital version, and if you go through our special link, you're going to get a printed version of this book. The book outlines 20 patterns that great managers are looking for in engineering teams. Some of these patterns are not very intuitive, for example, having a hero on your team. It may look like you're shipping a lot of code together, but ultimately, a lot of the information is trapped up in one person's head, which can be really dangerous in terms of risk if that person decides to, for example, leave the company. But it can also cause a lot of uncertainty for other team members. These are the kinds of patterns that great managers know how to identify. And if you read the book, you can start learning about these patterns as well. Go and check it out. Git Prime.com slash 20 patterns. That's Git Prime, git Prime.com slash the numbers 20 patterns. Thanks so much to Git Prime for sponsoring today's episode. So we're talking about engineering aha moments into your daily work. And perhaps a bit ironically, one of the ways that you cannot engineer aha moments into your daily work is to try to think really hard. This seems like an intuitive option on the table that if you just spent more time thinking, if you just had a chance to really go over your options, or if you could really dive into your business even deeper that somehow that's going to give you the fruits of your labor. The truth is, most research suggests that aha moments come as a result of resting. Or perhaps a better word for this is actually recovery. Because an endless amount of rest is not the prescription for these aha moments. And laziness certainly isn't either. Instead, the way we want to think about this is in terms of modes of thinking. Our brain is not a machine that just simply turns on and off. It has multiple different ways of functioning. And so we can imagine that our activity is something that our brain kind of understands as either work or not work. But our brain doesn't draw those lines. We do. We draw those lines either for our relationships or within our culture. But ultimately, our brain is simply processing the world around us. This is why the aha moments coming at an unexpected time, well your brain is not trying to trick you. Instead, it's operating as it sees fit. So what is the prescription? If resting all day is not the prescription, if laziness is not the prescription, and if thinking really hard is not the prescription, then how do we trigger more aha moments? Growth and learning for humans, especially as it relates to developing skills or developing a set of knowledge, is perhaps best served when using the concept of progressive overload. Now this concept is most often discussed when talking about fitness. As you work out, you increase the intensity or you increase the weight that you're lifting, you overload a little bit more each time. And you're much more likely to grow to become more physically capable. If your workout looks more like intervals, in other words, a high intensity moment followed by a short recovery period followed by another high intensity moment, rather than maintaining a constant pace. Now I guess it's important that we say that this isn't necessarily true for people who are training to run marathons and doing endurance running that kind of thing. But instead we're talking about invoking some kind of change in your body, in your physical ability, in your skill. And this happens to work similarly for intellectual problems. Emmercing yourself into a difficult and taxing kind of mentally stressful problem for a short period of time and then taking a recovery period and returning to that problem later is a much more effective way of working than kind of going 60% for a solid day. So this is the concept of progressive overload as it applies to generating those aha moments. And the reason that those aha moments are generated is because your mind is engaging deeply with that content in a direct way. But once you are in that recovery period, your mind isn't disengaged from that content. Your mind is not disengaged from the problem. Instead it's processing it in a fundamentally different way at a physical level. Your brain is working differently than when you are actively engaging that problem. We aren't going to get into the neuroscience behind this. There's plenty of studies that are easily Googleable. But at a fundamental level, your brain is going through a different kind of process. More specifically the information that you've kind of presented to your brain, your brain is sorting through it. This happens for example when you sleep. So in order to engineer more aha moments, I'm going to recommend two things. One, take on more difficult problems. Immerse yourself in overload. Give yourself real challenges that you're likely to fail at. This is the only way to kind of force adaptation for your brain. The second recommendation is to not spend all day just trying to push through that problem. But instead, take regular breaks. Work really hard. Exert 100% effort with 100% mindfulness on the problems that you were actually working on at the moment. And then when you're resting, totally rest. Disengage. Put the phone down. Put the computer down. Watch TV. Go on a walk around the block. Exercise is an excellent way to disengage. And so is absolute rest, sleep. Or even just hanging out with your friends or your family, disengage from the work on a regular basis and do this in cycles throughout your day. We're not talking about disengaging at the end of the day. We're talking about disengaging in the work during the day. Going through these kind of pomodoro cycles, as we've talked about on the show before, can not only change your kind of health habits at work where you get up and go and get a bottle of water, that's not the only benefit to taking those breaks. You actually have a major cognitive benefit if you can give yourself a few minutes to just totally rest even during the work day. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode. Thank you again to Get Prime for sponsoring today's episode. You can learn more about your team by understanding the patterns that are present in the work they are doing. Head over to Get Prime dot com slash 20 patterns. That's git prime dot com slash 20 patterns. They're going to send you a free printed version of this book and you'll also get a digital version. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. Today's episode wouldn't be possible without our awesome producer, Sarah Jackson. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.