Problem to Solve? You Never Imagined It Could Be So Easy

New research shows how to use a problem-solving tool you already have

Posted Jul 27, 2018

mehta123 / 123RF
Source: mehta123 / 123RF

Tanisha* was frustrated. Her boss wanted her to finish a job that any reasonable person would know would take at least a few weeks – but her boss wanted it by the end of the week. 

Ivar* and his girlfriend were locked in an ongoing argument. “She says I need to get in touch with my feelings,” he told me. “I don’t even know what she’s talking about. I know what I feel. I just don’t go around talking about it all the time.”

Facing a problem that you just can’t solve? If so, you’re not alone. Feeling like you don’t know what to do in a difficult situation is surprisingly common, even among highly successful, extremely competent people. In fact, writes life coach and TED speaker Melody Wilding, “Many high-achievers struggle with thoughts that they are a fraud and that they are incompetent, despite a track record of accomplishments.”

There are a number of factors that can contribute to your difficulty finding a solution, including self-doubt, anxiety and/or depression, peer pressure and pressure from work, and lack of practice at problem-solving. But there is another area that I have found is often tied to any of these other difficulties: a failure of imagination. 

“Failure of imagination” is a phrase often used after the fact to explain why a particular tragedy occurred or a specific project backfired. My PT colleague Gary Klein offers the disturbing example of an airliner crash that occurred in part because of a failure to imagine a range of possibilities.  

But in my experience, an inability to imagine other possibilities is a common difficulty today because we are trained from a very young age to focus on “reality” (which, by the way, has many different definitions) and not on the “unreal” material generated by our imagination. 

Yet imagination can get us out of tricky spots and help us untangle difficult situations, at home or at work, in projects or in relationships. To imagine, from the same root as image, is “to form a mental image of (something not present).” Of course, there are a variety of mental images that can go into imagination, ranging from fantasies of dinosaurs overrunning the world to monsters in the closet to imaginary friends, to being able to fly. Many of us learn as children to ignore those fantasies. 

Yet when we push aside all of our fantasy world, we also often push aside the ability to imagine different scenarios from the one that is causing problems. In other words, we lose one of the most important tools we have for problem-solving. 

My PT colleague Amy Fries writes about the power of daydreamsas well as some of the problems that can occur when you daydream too much. Susan K. Perry, also a PT colleague, describes how "daydreams-to-order can unlock your creativity." In my own writing about these surprisingly common daily fantasies, I have talked about how daydreams are a private, internal conversation between different parts of yourself. 

mehta123 / 123RF
Source: mehta123 / 123RF

Daydreams and fantasies are a way of building your imagination “muscles.” Obviously, too much fantasizing can interfere with getting things accomplished in your life. But not enough fantasizing can do the same thing.

In a study published in 2017, a group of researchers discovered that daydreaming, or “mind wandering,” is a sign of intelligence and high levels of brain function. People who are good at solving complicated problems are often able to do so precisely because they let their minds wander a little bit. 

“I try to imagine different possible scenarios in my head,” said one senior executive when I asked her how she problem-solved some of the complicated issues that she faced daily. “I really let myself go to town with some of the images. And then I start to cull them down. I actually don’t start with the most realistic ones. I try to ask myself what might be useful from the craziest ideas that I’m having.”

For instance, she told me, at one point her staff began to complain about construction noise coming from a company above them. “They had my sympathy — it was driving us all crazy. But my first thought was that there wasn’t anything I could do about it. And then I started imagining various possible solutions. 

“I considered soundproofing our entire office. It was a crazy, outrageously expensive idea that couldn’t be implemented, but I let myself indulge in it for a while. I kept picturing the entire office in total, blessed silence. I had an image of us all swaddled in soft cotton material. It was all crazy. But it wasn’t the only image I had. I thought about going to the people upstairs and giving them a piece of my mind. That wasn’t going to happen, for any number of reasons, the biggest one being that they had a right to do their construction – just as we would if we needed to. 

“I thought about asking them to have their work done on weekends and at night, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen either, since that kind of arrangement is difficult and costly and often goes against city noise codes. But I kept letting myself imagine possibilities.

“I guess you could call it internal brainstorming – just no one else was involved in it with me. And finally, I came up with a solution that was part crazy and part totally rational. First, I discussed it with my seniors and told them that I was thinking it might be useful to just open a conversation with the people upstairs. We brainstormed together and my big boss agreed that we could do it diplomatically, but see if they had any possible suggestions for cutting the noise. And then I sprang the second, crazier part: how about a quiet room, on a different floor of our building, for our staff to take turns spending part of the day in?

“At first, everyone rejected my idea. It was unrealistic, too complicated, too expensive. But ultimately, that’s actually what we did. That, and the fact that the company upstairs agreed to try to concentrate their noisiest work at off-times whenever possible, and that they also gave us an end-date for the construction, which gave everyone a feeling that at least we knew that it would be over at some point, went a long way toward helping everyone go back to getting their work done. And it got me a promotion.”

When Tanisha began to allow herself to imagine possibilities around her impossible work assignment, she was nervous. “All I’m thinking about,” she said, “is going in and telling my boss that she’s asking for something I can’t do. And getting fired.” But soon she found that she had other fantasies as well. “I thought about asking her to meet with me and talk about how she would imagine accomplishing all of this. But that sounded like I couldn’t do my job.” Eventually, Tanisha realized she could say to her boss that she was concerned that this was a larger task than either of them realized and that she would like to discuss priorities. To prepare for the meeting, she separated the huge task into smaller segments, which she then presented to her boss. “She was impressed and grateful,” Tanisha said. “I was clear that I wasn’t shirking my job, but that I was thinking about ways to make sure that it was done well. She seemed to like that.”

kadettmann / 123RF Stock Photo
Source: kadettmann / 123RF Stock Photo

Ivar decided to bring his girlfriend into his journey into imaginary situations. “I asked her what she thought I would look and sound like if I was talking about my feelings,” he said. “Some of the conversation got really silly. But suddenly, I realized that what she really meant was that she wanted to know that I understood her when she told me about her feelings. She was afraid that since I didn’t ever talk about my feelings, I didn’t understand what she was talking about or feeling. It wasn’t easy, but I started imagining myself feeling some of the things she talked about; and I shared some of my images with her. And that seemed to make a big difference!”

Far from interfering with day-to-day life, the mental images created by your imagination can help you solve a wide range of problems. The next time you are faced with a difficult situation that seems impossible to solve, let your mind run wild for a few minutes. And then sort through those crazy mental images to see if any of them offer you some realistic possibilities!


*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

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