Procrastination: Fight or Flight

I don’t know about you, but usually when I have a problem I do one of two things: (1) mentally obsess about it until I collapse into an anxiety-ridden corpse in my mentor’s office, or (2) completely ignore it and actively pretend that the giant sparkly nuclear bomb in my office inbox doesn’t exist. Most of the time when we ignore our problems, it’s because we don’t want to stir up bad emotions. When we are uncertain about how to approach the problem, we avoid it. It’s a defensive tactic. It’s normal, but not helpful.

To think of it another way, consider our fight or flight response. When we feel threatened, we either immediately confront the threat and deal with it, or we get as far away from the threat as possible. This is our fight or flight response coded into our DNA and it’s also completely normal, but also not helpful. Once again, we are not dealing with the issue. So, find a quiet place and take a few deep breaths. It’s time to think this through.

Intuitive Approach

Some of us have a pretty strong gut-intuition about situations. Chances are you’ve solved a problem intuitively more than once in your life. We look at things holistically and just magically decide what feels right or what looks to be the best path. Often, this type of thinking is based on pattern recognition. Our brain chooses the option that seems optimal. We are subconsciously using previous knowledge or experiences to decide what is the best course of action for our current problem.

Analytical Approach

Other times, we use a more analytical and systematical approach to problem-solving. This approach is more often used when you are confronted with a complex or confusing problem that is not easily understood. This process is slower and more deliberate as we often have to break the problem down into smaller or more simple parts before arriving at a possible solution. For the analytical approach, our brains exert a significant cognitive effort to reason through decisions. Therefore this approach can be inefficient for some problems. No one is purely intuitive or analytical when it comes to problem-solving, we each use a combination depending on the situation and problem at hand.

When Your Head Fails, Use Paper

If you’re still unable to come to a solution after thinking through a problem intuitively and analytically – it’s time to take the problem out of your head and put it on paper. But first, do something physical to get you up and out of your chair. Go be creative with your hands. Get some fresh air.

Okay, now that we are back and ready to re-attack our problem. Disconnect from technology in your immediate vicinity, as much as possible, and then begin to write down your problem. First, document the true facts of the issue. How did you learn about the problem? Who are all the stakeholders involved? What are the systems, processes, or organizations that are involved. Write everything down. “Seeing your own thoughts on paper reveals weaknesses in your own arguments and leads you on a process of discovery towards a new and powerful solution.”

Overcoming Bias

Another aspect to consider is your own personal bias or stereotyping that may be affecting the situation. Bias is often encountered when you think intuitively. If you are running into any bias while you are formulating a solution to your problem, here are a few things to keep in mind. Mindware is defined as the “rules, knowledge, procedures, and strategies that a person can retrieve from memory in order to aid decision making and problem solving.” The idea is that knowledge of the particular bias and strategies that can reduce or eliminate it. In other words, if you know you are bias against a certain individual in the workplace—and that person is involved in your problem—by knowing and recognizing that you have a bias will help you in coming up with a solution that does not further your bias towards that person. Try switching to an analytical approach if you think there’s an aspect of bias infecting your thinking. Debiasing is not easy, and there is no “one size fits all” solution, but I have faith in you and your long term efforts to reduce bias or stereotyping.

Wrap Up

Both intuitive and analytical thinking are important and help us in our everyday lives. Be aware of your fight-or-flight response and cognizant of when you are actively choosing to ignore the elephant in the room. Decide which method of problem-solving will serve you best in the current situation. And always be aware of any bias or stereotyping that may cloud your thinking.

Now, go put on your big girl panties, and solve that problem!