Jack Uldrich
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Zone Out to Zone In

Posted in Ambiguity, Creativity, Innovation, Psychology, Unlearn Strategy

We must unlearn the constellation to see the stars.” – Jack Gilbert

Question: Consider these three words: eye, gown, basket. Can you think of another word that relates to all three?

If not, don’t fret. Zone out. That’s right, don’t focus, concentrate, “zone in” or even try get “in the zone.” Just allow your mind to wander.

Of the many beliefs and habits society must unlearn, one is the idea that the traits of concentration and focus are undeniably positive attributes. This is not to imply these traits are bad. They aren’t. In fact, for the most part, they are instrumental to a person or an organization’s success.

As with so many other things in life, however, moderation is necessary. With this caveat in mind, I’d like to therefore give you permission to daydream and zone out on occasion. A host of new scientific research suggests that “mind wandering” can yield positive results; and, if you have ever come up with a clever, creative or innovative solution to a pesky problem while walking, exercising or taking a hot bath or shower, you can perhaps testify to its benefits.

Scientists theorize that while zoning out people are more apt to engage different parts of the brain. This facilitates the creation of new connections, which, in turn, lead to new insights and the development of creative solutions.

Picture-2 In his excellent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink recounts the work of psychologist Karl Duncker and his “candle problem.” In its simplest form, people are given a candle, a box of tacks and a book of matches and told to attach the candle to a wooden wall in such a way that no wax drips on the table. (See figure 1.)

Most people begin by attempting to adhere the candle to the wall with a tack or by melting the bottom of the candle and sticking it to the wall. Neither strategy works. Before the problem can be solved people must overcome what is termed “functional fixedness.” In this case, participants must see the box of tacks as a platform, which can also be attached to the wall. (Figure 2.)

CandleProblemSolution What is more interesting is that when another psychologist offered students a financial incentive to solve the problem, he discovered it took the students an average of 3.5 minutes longer to solve.

The reason is because the inducement of a financial reward caused most people to narrow their focus. In other words, they zoned in on a misguided solution and it hindered their ability to see the problem from a different – and, ultimately, more constructive — perspective.

Now, to return to the question at the beginning of this section, have you arrived at the correct solution? If not, that may be because you have kept your eye on the ball too closely. You’d have been better off taking a break and playing with a ball. (If you still haven’t arrived at the solution it is: ball.)



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