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January 25, 2006 Volume 6, Issue 4
 
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The Shower Effect: Sudden Insights

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Ever have a brilliant insight, a forehead-slapping moment? You think, "Now I get it!" or "Why didn't I think of this before?" What causes these moments? How can we make them happen sooner?

The waitress came with the check, enclosed in one of those black leather book things. Since they were a table of 14, Ed was mystified as she unhesitatingly set the check down directly in front of him. He wondered: maybe, waiting table, you gradually learn to recognize groups from work, and then how to figure out who will be paying.

A waterfall and spray cliff in the mountains of Virginia

A waterfall and spray cliff in the mountains of Virginia. Photo by Gary P. Fleming, courtesy Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

He looked at the check. A hundred ten dollars didn't buy as much pizza as it once did, but Ed was sure it was a good investment, and slipped a credit card into the black leather book. He leaned forward, to better see everyone. "I've got this," he said. "Why don't you all get back, and we'll reconvene at 1:30. OK?"

A chorus of 'OKs' and 'See you thens,' as chairs were pushed back and people arose. Marian remained seated. She leaned across the table to Ed. "OK if I ride with you? I have something…"

"Sure, soon as I pay this off."

After everyone left, Marian began, "I hope you aren't doing this pizza on your own."

Ed shook his head. "No, the company will cover it. Especially after someone figures out the answer on the way back to the office from here."

"You hope," said Marian.

"I'm sure it'll happen. It's the shower effect. You know, when it suddenly comes to you in the shower."

Sudden Insight
is often the key
to solving
difficult problems
When we work on a difficult problem, a sudden insight is often the key to the solution. By taking the whole group out to lunch, Ed has encouraged them all to put the problem aside, freeing them to stop working on it. And he hopes that that freedom will help stimulate sudden insight.

If we understand how sudden insights happen, and if we can make them happen sooner, we can solve problems faster and better. Here are some tips for generating sudden insights.

You probably already know what you need to know
Frequently, it turns out that the key to the solution was already in hand. Find new ways to look at the information you already have.
Some of what you know is irrelevant
Subtly clever solutions are often camouflaged by the irrelevant. Try throwing away items that you already know, and then examine what's left.
The irrelevant often isn't
Some of what you think is irrelevant might be relevant. Ask yourself, "What if this matters?"
Abandon the usual approaches
What makes the problem difficult is that your usual approaches aren't working. Try something completely different.
Stop trying to solve it
When you stop trying, you free your brain to stop using conventional approaches. This is one reason why the answer so often comes to us "in the shower."

You might be wondering how this article will end. I wondered too, so I took a shower. Sometimes it doesn't work. Go to top Top  Next issue: Ten Tactics for Tough Times: Part I  Next Issue
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Reader Comments
Mickey Kirksey (Trane, Inc.)Trane, Inc.
I keep a note pad and pencil beside my bed, because I normally have those blinding flashes of insight as I am falling asleep and if I don't write them down, they fade like a dream and I can't recall them.
Another reminiscent thought from the same vein, when I was a service tech, and could not figure out the problem, I'd call my wife and talk about nothing for a while. Suddenly, I'd realize the solution. Once I said, "Hey, thanks." she knew I had figured it out and she'd say, "Bye, glad I was able to help."

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