The value of stepping away from your desk

As a solo founder, there were a lot of times when I felt very conflicted about an important decision I needed to make.  As an engineer, I often find myself vacillating on some tradeoff between various approaches to a problem.  As a programmer, I (all too) frequently find myself stuck trying to figure out some weird bug.

In each of these cases, my natural inclination is to stick with it, and struggle through the problem until I’ve got it all worked out.  Sometimes, this can even go on for hours late into the night.  However, I’ve become convinced that’s really the wrong approach.

After much painful experience, I’ve taught myself to step away from my desk and go for a 20 minute walk when I find myself in that situation.  While walking, I don’t particularly try to solve the problem (though I don’t deliberately avoid it either).  Whenever possible, I ask my wife to go along with me.

That 20 minutes away, and especially the mild exercise and change of scenery, resets my brain.  When I come back to the problem, I’ve forgotten all of the little details of exactly where I was with it, and I have to start over again.  While this seems extremely counter-productive, it’s actually extremely helpful.  The process of having to pick up the pieces again resets any erroneous assumptions I’d made about what I thought I understood about the problem, and it forces me to check my premisses about exactly what I think I know.  Nine times out of ten, this is exactly what I need to get back on track.

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