If you're anything like me, or virtually any other entrepreneur, then you like to be in control. That doesn't necessarily mean that you're a control freak--although it might--but rather that you'd prefer to be calling the shots rather than following someone else's lead. I could spend the rest of this column listing the many positives and negatives of a control mindset but let's be blunt, nothing I say is going to change your need to be in control. It's just how you're wired.
The challenge, in my experience, is that people who need to be in control also develop such a deep attachment to their point of view that they run a high risk of tunnel vision. The result is that they get stuck on an idea and nothing short of a direct nuclear hit will dislodge them. In some cases that's a good thing since it keeps you focused, but it can also shut you off to the sort of critical thinking that's needed when your idea runs headlong into reality.
By the way, don't make the mistake of thinking that you're immune to this. We're all wired for tunnel vision.
Spinning Out Of Control
In an exercise that I've conducted with tens of thousands of people to show how susceptible we are to tunnel vision I show a short animation of a silhouetted girl spinning. I ask audience to tell me if she is spinning clockwise or counterclockwise. Half see her spinning clockwise and half see her spinning counterclockwise. Try it yourself before you read on.
Cool, Right? But it's what comes next that's startling. The direction of spin is an illusion. The girl's silhouette would look that same in either direction of spin. What happens is that the our brains pick a direction, impose a selective bias and then stick to it.
With that knowledge I then ask the audience to change the direction of spin. Less than 10% of people can change her direction. The rest of are just stuck no matter how long I let them watch. The reason is that our brains are pattern matching engines; once we pick a pattern there is little we can do to change it--even when we know the pattern exists only in our mind.
Pattern matching is how we've survived as a species but it's also what often gets us into trouble when the bias we develop no longer aligns with reality. So how do you break free of your own convictions when those convictions no longer reflect the reality of the market?
The same way that you change the direction of the spinning girl. You need to take a break and disrupt your field of view. When I ask my audiences to close their eyes, block off a portion of the image, or look away from it for a few seconds, the number of people who can change the direction of spin doubles.
Out Of Focus
That's actually due to a very specific set of biological responses in the brain.
When you're focusing intensely on a process your prefrontal cortex (PFC) is working overtime to solv the problem. The PFC is the logical part of the brain that's responsible for executive function and problem solving. It's the thinking part of your brain. It's also responsible for the willpower needes to overcome distractions. In those moments when you're in the zone, making decisions, and executing on a plan the PFC is going at full throttle. Anything that comes up as a new or novel way to address problem, and doesn't fit into the mental model you have of the problem, is set aside in order to heighten focus.
Think of it like a camera lens that focuses vey narrowly on one object while all the rest of the objects in the frame are blurred and out of focus.
What's even more interesting is that studies have shown that the PFC is also responsible for determining the outcome of future events based on current knowledge of a situation. So, you can see how once you create a bias towards a specific outcome (think of our spinning girl) the PFC is loath to let go of it.
Here's what's amazing about that. It's been shown in studies on patients who have damaged PFCs that their ability to solve certain types of creative problems actually increases! In a way you could say that these people have an inability to focus or, even better, that they have the ability to keep more things from being our of focus.
The challenge here, especially for people who want to be in control, when it comes to creative problem solving, is that the harder you stress the PFC the less likely it is that you'll see a problem through a new perspective. The only way to prevent that is to destress the PFC by giving it a break so that you can see the problem from a fresh perspective.
While there's no magic number for the amount of time it may take to do this, one analogy often used is how mussels build strength during the recovery period immediately following a vigorous workout. That's often something that happens over the course of one to two days.
Keep in mind that none of this is to say that focus and concentration aren't needed. As with a workout, you can only get the benefit of building new muscle in the recovery phase by first putting in an intense workout.
Breaking Free Of The Guilt
So, why do we resist taking a break from a problem? Easy, it doesn't feel like we're doing anything to solve the problem. And this brings us back to issue of control.
If you're the kind of person who wants to control a situation then the guilt of not doing anything is overwhelming. It's much easier to assuage the guilt by keeping at the problem rather than walking away from it. And, yet, that's often only going to further entrench you in a course of action that's built on a strong bias for whatever solutions you've already decided on.
It's easy to take credit for our ability to solve tough problems. It's hard to find any entrepreneur or leader who doens't belive that the are good problem solvers. The truth is every entrepreneur I've known has had to pivot multiple times before hitting on his or her winning formula. They've had to jettison ideas that they were absolutely convinced were spot on and change direction in ways they has never even imagined. And they solved some of their biggest problems by breaking free of the past and creating a newpath into the future.
Having a hard time believing all of this? Take a break and get back to me on it.