Everyone has their own way of unwinding from stress. For me, it's tinkering away at a jigsaw puzzle. I love the challenge of interlocking pieces together to form a complete picture. After I've found a home for the last piece of a puzzle, I feel refreshed and invigorated. The process of creating order out of initial chaos calms my mind.
And I'm not alone. Bill and Melinda Gates are raving fans of jigsaw puzzles. When speaking as a guest lecturer at one of my classes at Stanford University a few years ago, Melinda reflected on many evenings spent with Bill tinkering away at puzzles. As part of a testimonial for the company, Stave Puzzles, Bill wrote, "We usually have one or two Stave puzzles along on vacations and during the holidays. We often have a Stave puzzle out on a table at the house. They're entertaining and stimulating."
The research also supports the positive benefits of jigsaw puzzles. A 2014 study found that exposure to games such as puzzles results in enhanced spatial skills. Another study spearheaded by Yale University found that joint engagement in solving puzzles results in improved collaboration and cooperation. Other studies have shown that involvement in puzzles can promote memory retention and reduce the likelihood of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease. All evidence points to the fact that puzzles give the brain a full-body workout.
My latest successful puzzle attempt was a 1,000 piece whopper titled "I had one of those." It depicted 50 or so different novelties from my parents' generation--Barbies, Hot Wheels, Chatty Cathy Dolls, Mr. Potato Head, all the classics. As I configured the pieces, I was reminded of the many valuable lessons that I've learned from puzzles over the years, lessons that are valuable to all walks of life.
Turn over all the pieces first.
When I first tear open a puzzle, I instinctively flip over all the pieces so that they are image-facing up. As with any problem, it's important to get an overview of the components entailed in solving the problem. Whether it's different team member personalities, conflicting organizational objectives, or different systems that need to be integrated, it's important to assess the lay of the land before attempting to hone in on a solution.
Construct the frame before the interior.
The first puzzle pieces I assemble are those with straight edges. Constructing the framework necessary to solve a problem allows you to define the scope of the project and limit ambiguity.
Ensure the image on the box cover is always visible.
Whenever I'm completing a puzzle, I have the box cover depicting the image clearly visible. Having a clear goal and objective in mind ensures that my actions are aligned with the desired output and I don't waste time barking up the wrong tree. Studies have shown that when we write down our goals and keep them highly visible, we're more likely to achieve them.
Develop a strategy.
I try to break puzzles up into manageable pieces. I develop a strategy at the onset and tackle one section at a time. I decided, for example, I was going to complete the Lite-Brite section of the puzzle before moving on to the Monopoly section. Developing a strategy and breaking a challenge into bite-sized pieces helps you avoid getting overwhelmed. Strategic thinking is a critical leadership skill.
You can't force pieces together.
Puzzles teach us that it's counterproductive to force things to fit where they don't belong. If a piece doesn't fit, it's time to go back to the drawing board and adopt a different strategy. As Einstein once remarked, the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results". It's important to realize when things aren't working and move on.
Take time to appreciate the details.
I need good lighting when I'm building a puzzle. Good lighting ensures I'm able to pick out the different color and detail nuances of the pieces. As with any problem, puzzle-doers are rewarded when they are observant and take time to appreciate the details. When I took time to observe that the color of red on the Silly Putty part of the puzzle was of a slightly different hue than that of the View Finder part, it was much easier to segregate the pieces and fit them together.
Recognize when it's time to take a break.
Struggling to complete the Mr. Potato Head section of the puzzle, I realized it was time to take a break. When I returned back to the puzzle with a fresh set of eyes, the puzzle pieces seemed to magically fit together. When you're struggling to solve a problem without making much progress, it's time to take a break.
Celebrate the small wins.
When puzzles are broken down into digestible pieces, it's easy to celebrate small wins. As with any problem, celebrating small wins ignites productivity and helps keep our engagement levels high. It's important to savor small victories. As I completed the Easy-Bake Oven section of the puzzle, I treated myself to a homemade brownie before moving on to the Creepy Crawlers section.
So often the challenges we face in life resemble fragmented jigsaw puzzles. Like a puzzle, the enormity of confronting life's challenges seems overwhelming at the onset. After you've completed a puzzle, you'll be better equipped to tackle life's challenges. The process of physically piecing together a jigsaw puzzle can be invigorating. Embrace the experience. I can assure you, it's well worth the time investment.