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Ask HN: How much time do you spend “thinking” about a hard problem each day?
22 points by wjossey on May 17, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 9 comments
I'm really curious to learn about how others allocate (or find time) in their schedule each day to reflect on a problem they're attempting to solve (personal or professional).

My personal anecdote:

I find that I tend to solve "hard" problems during periods of unconscious processing (times where I'm NOT actively thinking about the problem). However, I also know I need to spend a lot of active time thinking about the problem first, before my brain can "take over". I'm usually able to structure in the unconscious processing time with things like exercise, in particular long distance hiking (5+ hours ideally) on weekends.

Finding time to reflect on problems in the middle of the week, in an active sense, has been my hardest challenge. As someone who codes all day for my startup, I can easily get into a groove for 10+ hours and not take any meaningful reflection breaks.

Does research count? For hard problems that I'm not sure how to answer I usually start by looking for any existing tool/framework/technique/blog post/paper that has solved a similar problem. I put copy what I find into Evernote, then, when applicable I sketch out a few different flow diagrams / schema diagrams / etc. to get a handle on how the pieces of my solution fit together.

If something is really complex / important / hard to change later, then I'll usually stop after the research phase and allow my unconscious mind to chew away on the solution, most commonly for me the 'Aha moment' comes during my morning workout. When I'm really stuck I re-read all my collected material, search for prior art again and repeat the process. Sometimes time forces me to just start building, although those are the times when I typically end up refactoring later.

I definitely agree that time away from the problem to reflect leads to a better solution, but IMHO you have to have a really great problem statement and good context for the subconscious to do its best work.

Your comment about needing a great problem statement resonates. For me, I only achieve this by really obsessing about a problem in some form of deep thought for a while.

What I wonder, based on your comment, is if I can distill exactly what I'm trying to do down to a simple statement or phrase, can I use some sort of technique to "imprint" the thought to my subconscious so it knows to go "work on this" for a while. Mind you, this may not even be a thing and this concept is all pseudo-science placebo, but it at least anecdotally rings true for me.

Once I get that "I'm getting kinda stuck in a rut here" feeling I usually take a lap around the building. (~5 min). That's usually enough.

I also go to the gym throughout the week but I usually am focusing on the workout too much to think about coding.

Sometimes I just have to more or less sleep on it though. I work on some other part of the project and come in the next day with fresh perspective. It's probably always kinda rolling around in the back of my head to some degree.

The Learning How to Learn course(free on Coursera) talks about focused mode vs diffused mode of thinking. I think you might find topic interesting. https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

Thanks! I’ll definitely checkout that link.

Good question. Got me thinking. I do not consciously allocate time for thinking about a hard problem, it just stays with me. Usually my AHA! moment comes during early mornings after the problem has stayed long enough and the moment is ripe.

I find that I really don't allocate set time periods for reflection on hard problems. Instead, I tend to think about pieces of it over hours and days in order to flesh them out properly, and tend to "attach" a piece to the solution whenever I feel like it's ready to go.

For me, early morning is best before I've been pulled into meetings or chats for various topics. That's the best time to block off time to focus on hard problems for a while.

The book 'Deep Work' by Cal Newport has some good perspectives on this.

I think most people will share similar experiences that good ideas often are not forced out during a scheduled session but come from 'nowhere' like during a walk, or drive, or shower.

What's your startup?

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