Problem solving 101: 7 signs it’s time to stop what you’re doing

Ian Lurie

A big part of problem solving is stepping away from the problem. Whether you’re writing code, writing a book or trying to figure out why a web site isn’t generating sales, there comes a point where your brain over-saturates and needs a good wringing out.

Here are some common signs you need a break:

  1. You think trying that same thing for a 40th time will fix the problem. It won’t.
  2. You’ve begun giggling at the thought of world-ending asteroids. Or am I the only one who does this? I just said too much, didn’t I…
  3. You find yourself staring off into space, thinking of nothing. That’s your brain telling you to take a break. So take it.
  4. You’re obsessing about the trivial: Did you just spend 30 minutes trying to get every last fingerprint off your monitor? Yeah. Again, that’s your brain telling you to cut it out. Listen to your brain! It’s got all your marbles.
  5. The problem is no longer the problem. Say you’re trying to figure out the best way to make an Excel spreadsheet to calculate total sales for 2003. You’ve worked on it for hours. Somewhere around hour 2, though, you started looking for the ideal font. That’s now sucked up all your brain power. Time to reboot—walk away, refocus on the core problem (the math) and deal with the formatting later.
  6. You’re getting cranky. Joke all you want, but I’m not a naturally cranky person. I’m a little gruff, maybe sarcastic. If I start sounding whiny, it’s definitely time to push back from the keyboard.
  7. You’re driving over the mountain instead of around it. Look at what you’re doing. No, really look. Are you doing this the hard way? Is there an easier alternative? Unless there’s a benefit to the tougher solution, you’re wasting energy. take a breather.

I’m one of the worst at this, by the way. I’ve been putting a lot of time into coding lately, I’ve found a pattern:

  1. I plan out the app I’m writing.
  2. I start writing it.
  3. Something trivial, like replacing all instances of “buh” in a paragraph, or grabbing one number from an API, leads to utter brain gridlock.
  4. I fight the desire to hit my computer with a desk chair.
  5. I walk away for a while.
  6. I solve the problem.

Don’t be me. Take a break around step 3, and you’ll be far better off.

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Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Dude awesome post! I can totally relate! I always know it’s time to take a break when I start getting mad at little things for no reason. Not just a little mad either! I’m talking seeing red lol!
    “Somewhere around hour 2, though, you started looking for the ideal font.” lol I’ve done that too! Cracked up when I read that.
    Good stuff man!

  2. Hilarious post ! Thanks – I needed that.
    Now, seriously, when I observe certain behaviors in myself, I like to use them as triggers. Examples:
    When I’m experiencing your points 2, 3 or 4, I know it’s time to stop executing and do planning. Review my to-do list, cross things out, add things and re-prioritize.
    When I experience 5 or 7, I know my “to-do” is too big. Time to label it as a “project” and break it down into shorter steps.
    That said, preventing asteroids from destroying the earth and cleaning fingerprints off the keyboard are both REALLY important.

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