Complex Issues & Public Outrage

Let’s say I invite you to my secret productivity-experiment lair. I offer you a seat, set a timer for 30 minutes, and ask you to solve this seemingly simple problem: The number 8,549,176,320 is the most unique 10-digit number. What makes it different? Let’s imagine you can’t solve the problem in the allotted time—not unreasonable, given that this is a tricky test. The question continues to weigh on your mind after you’ve left.

By now you’ve reached an impasse and have encoded the problem to memory. You see those digits whenever you close your eyes. (Naturally, the better you remember a complex problem, the greater your odds of coming up with a creative solution.)

Thanks partly to the Zeigarnik effect, your mind will automatically connect new experiences to this problem. You return to work with the number imprinted on your brain. You find your mind returning to it periodically, sometimes even against your will. In fact, odds are your mind will wander more often than usual—our thoughts drift more when we’re chewing on a complex problem—which causes you to make a higher-than-normal number of mistakes in your work.

Later in the day, you’re doing an activity that takes you into habitual scatterfocus mode: alphabetizing your bookshelf. You’re putting away the book The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch. Your mind processes where the book will be shelved.

Okay, ignore the word “the.”

First value is 8, so I’ll put it with the other books that start with a number.

Huh, the first number in Chris’ experiment was also an 8.

The solution hits you like a lightning bolt.


Eight, five, four, nine . . .

A, B, C, D, Eight, Five, Four, G, H . . .

The number has every digit arranged in alphabetical order!

This is a straightforward example of an insight trigger—usually they are more subtle, nudging your mind to think in a different direction to restructure the mental dots that represent a problem. I designed this example to illustrate a simple concept: A wandering mind connects the problems we’re tackling with what we experience and where our minds wander.

Look back at some of the greatest eureka moments in history. In addition to reaching an impasse with their problems, some famous thinkers arrived at solutions to them after being spurred by an external cue. Archimedes figured out how to calculate the volume of an irregular object when he noticed his bathwater overflowing. Newton came up with his theory of gravity when he saw an apple fall from a tree—probably the best-known insight trigger in history. For his habitual scatterfocus routine, renowned physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman would sip 7UP at a topless bar, where he could “‘watch the entertainment’,” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.”

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