Solve Your Next Creative Problem by Solving a Jigsaw Puzzle First

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Puzzle with one piece out of place
Photo: 237/Adam Gault/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

I didn’t exactly know how to begin this post, so I scrolled through Twitter for a few moments, as is my habit when I don’t exactly know how to begin a post. And maybe you do this sort of thing, too, when you’re stuck on some creative(ish) task. Writer Nick Hornby, on the other hand, rather sheepishly admitted on a recent episode of “The Nerdist” podcast that he prefers a more old-fashioned activity when he is battling writer’s block: jigsaw puzzles.

Near the desk where he does most of his writing, he has another desk where he works on complicated, thousand-piece puzzles. When he gets stuck on his writing, he turns to the jigsaw puzzle. “It’s just enough to occupy your mind, but it leaves great chunks of your mind free,” Hornby said. “And I do it until suddenly I can see that there might be another sentence in me.” It’s a pretty decent example of the power of mindlessness, the idea that while staying focused and in the moment is great, allowing your mind to wander for a bit can be beneficial, too, perhaps especially when it comes to creative tasks. 

It’s similar to why your best ideas come to you in the shower or on a long walk; it’s also why some people keep little toys at their desks to fidget with while they work. Each of these activities requires a little cognitive power, but not too much, and as such they help induce what Harvard psychologist Shelley H. Carson calls an “incubation period.” “In other words, a distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution,” she told the Boston Globe. Your wandering mind might then be able to put together some insights you wouldn’t have come up with if you’d dutifully stayed focused on the blank page. 

For Hornby, incidentally, playing around on social media has the exact opposite effect. “I’d get right out of the zone, completely, by reading people’s Facebook posts, and looking at lists of the 5,000 greatest James Bond films, and things like that,” he said. “If you … read junk then it takes you out of the page, no doubt about it. But the jigsaws keep me in the page.” This may not be true for everyone; psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman told Science of Us last year that some people might achieve that mind-wandering state by a quick scroll through Twitter. Social media, long walks, headless Lego sharks — whatever works.