Where Science Meets Muse

Concentration Key to Creative Problem Solving

Posted by Plish on May 5, 2009

Your Brain has Limited Bandwidth (michael plishka 2009)

Your Brain has Limited Bandwidth (michael plishka 2009)


“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”

-Alexander Graham Bell

Read an article that said that the Internet was reaching its limits.  Bandwidth is not infinite after all.

It makes sense – there are only so many connections, only so much information can flow through those channels.

Yet, when it comes to our magnificent brains we think we’re immune to bandwidth constraints.  

We’re not.  (By the way, thinking about bandwidth constraints uses up bandwidth!)

Typical scenario:

You’re working on a problem.  Two minutes into it the phone rings.  You glance at the Caller-ID, don’t recognize it and go back to your problem…Email comes in…quick check…good news…okay back to the problem….

10 minutes pass but during that time you thought also about dinner tonight, the other project, and the hang nail on your left pinky….

SHOOT!  You forgot to call the supplier…back on the horn…

And so it goes… on…

and on….

Technology enabled free-flow of information, demands of friends and family, physical ailments, things I want to do for fun-  all compete for bandwidth in our brains.  To make matters worse, when we don’t get the solutions we want, stress is the end result – which has the effect of minimizing your already finite and overused mental bandwidth.

What is the solution?

There’s much you can do, but the most important is to stop multi-tasking.  Multi-tasking isn’t efficient. If you don’t believe me call your friend to discuss Relativity while driving in a snow storm on icy roads and your windshield wipers out.  Better yet, call from the ditch – it’s safer there.

According to this great article on concentration, research has shown it takes up to 20 minutes for the brain to “reboot” after an interruption.  In other words, in the scenario mentioned earlier, with the exception of the first couple of minutes, you never recovered after the first phone call and you spent no, really fruitful, thinking time on your problem.

I once read about a Nobel Prize winner  who, when asked his secret to solving mind-bending problems said something like, “I can concentrate on a problem for 10 minutes.” (By the way, if you know who said this, I’d love to re-find the reference)

That’s all it took – 10 minutes(!) at a pop to solve problems that most of us wouldn’t even try to solve.  The difference is that he truly, deeply, committed ALL his mental and physical bandwidth to his problem for 10 uninterrupted minutes.

His mind became the intense lens of focus and concentration that Alexander Graham Bell spoke of. 

What else can we do to become disciplined in concentration and focus?

Some suggestions:

  • Take the phone off the hook
  • Make a rule to only answer emails at designated times
  • Meditate
  • Plan breaks at specific intervals (90 minute chunks of time are good)
  • Eat healthy
  • Stay hydrated
  • ??

What else would you suggest?


2 Responses to “Concentration Key to Creative Problem Solving”

  1. Shellie said

    Multitasking is a misleading term. For clarity purposes we are rapid taskers. We do things in an order that stategically is the most efficient string of tasks. It is not that we actually do them at the same time. We simply view the tasks at hand as a string of tasks, rather than a single task. Same as writing and singing and speaking, strings of tasks. Everyone is a tasker, but not all people are rapid taskers. We appear to be doing multiple things because our ability to remember more tasks at one time is larger than other people who are commonly referred to as single task people. Multi-taskers are time management gurus. We view the tasks as an overall process and then execute the individual tasks more rapidly than single task oriented people who get caught up in mono task sections of productivity and view it as changing tasks. It is simply a pivoting of perception. Choosing to focus on the OVERALL objective as a series of tasks that are most efficiently executed in a specific order to easily move from one task to the next with minimal down time for trying to decide what to do next. I am an avid RAPID tasker. My productivity when working is excellent (according to my employers). If you focus on one production task at a time, it is very hard to change to another task, because it feels as though you are starting anew, when at the same time a rapid tasker would have already known exactly what to do and been planned for it before you.

  2. Plish said

    Hi Shellie,
    Thanks for your thoughts and perspectives, much appreciated!
    I agree that rapid tasking and multi-tasking are not the same. In fact, multi-tasking is still, physiologically speaking, sequential in order. Making that sequential process more efficient is what you, and others, are able to do.
    Having said that, research shows that any type of rapid/multi-tasking seems to suffer when deeper thought and problem solving is required. The brain needs to stay latched on to problems for a while in order to effectively get at solutions; stopping and starting doesn’t help in this realm.
    Would love to hear if you have any other studies or info on rapid-tasking – I’m sure others would love to read about it.
    Thanks again for stopping by!!

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