Developer Tea

Strategies for Overcoming Mental Blocks

Episode Summary

In today's episode, we're continuing the conversation from our last episode and talking about what you can do once you admit that you don't know an answer to a question as a developer.

Episode Notes

What do you do when you hit a mental block and don't know how to solve a problem? 

Today we'll dig into what we can do about this blocked scenario and how can we better deal with negative emotions that follow. 


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Episode Transcription

In the last episode of the show, I asked the question, what will you do when you don't know? In today's episode, we're going to go to the next step. What can you do once you admit you don't know? My name is Jonathan Cutrell, you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on this show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. So when you are faced with a question, whether that question is coming from yourself, let's say you encounter a problem in your code, or it's coming from a coworker or a friend, and you don't have any answers. In fact, not only do you have no answers, but you have no leads, no idea of what to do next. Kind of hitting a complete wall, the mental block. What do you do next? As developers, this happens to us a lot in our careers, but it happens to everyone. Everyone faces a problem that they have no idea how to solve it. And this can be a very emotional thing. It's important to understand that when you experience a mental block, it's very likely to engage your emotions much faster than if you were to experience a problem where you have some kind of way forward, a solution. And the reason for this is because you're moving out of thinking about the problem itself, most likely, because you've accepted that you're blocked on the problem, and now you're thinking about the consequences of being blocked. So instead of using that slow and methodical problem-solving brain, you move into that fast forecasting brain, the one that is looking out for threats that is constantly trying to kind of play out future scenarios that haven't even happened yet in a way trying to prepare for those threats. Now, what can we do about this kind of blocked scenario? And how can we deal with these emotions better? We'll talk about that right after we talk about today's sponsor, Lynneau, if you've been listening to Developer Tea for very long at all, then you've heard about Lynneau. And that's because Lynneau has been one of our longest running sponsors. Why do you think that is? Well, Lynneau is a company run by developers, making tools and services for developers. With 11 data centers worldwide, including the newest one, Launched and Sydney, Australia, and Enterprise Grade Hardware S3 Compatible Storage Option, and the Next Generation Network, Lynneau delivers the performance you expect at a price that you don't. For example, you can get started with as low as $5 a month, and Lynneau is going to give you a $20 credit if you sign up as a new customer today, and you use the promo code Developer Tea 2020 when you create your account. Head over to slash Developer Teato get started, and you'll have root access to your server along with access via a version for API and a Python CLI. Again that's promo code Developer Tea 2020. When you create your new Lynneau account, you'll get $20 worth of credit towards your next project. Thanks again to Lynneau for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. So what can we do when we are blocked on a problem? There's a lot of strategies to try to get unblocked from a problem. We're going to kind of rapid fire through a handful of these strategies, and I won't say that any one of them is better than the other. It all depends on your context, but certainly all of these strategies have a place in your toolkit for problem solving. The first strategy is to reach out to someone else. You may have a dead angle. You may not be seeing clearly a way forward that someone else may be able to see clearly, not because they are better or smarter or any of those other superior things to you. Instead simply because they have had a different experience in their career or in their life. Or maybe it's just something that's happening in your brain today that's happening different in their brain. And so when they encounter the problem, something clicks for them that doesn't click for you. And so this is one of the fastest and most effective ways to deal with a brain block. Use a different brain. And in fact, many of the strategies that we're going to rapid fire through here are about changing the situation. Because when you come to that deadlock, when you have a problem and you've tried to think it through and nothing seems to be working, then it's time to try something different to make some kind of change. The wonderful benefit of bringing someone else into the problem is that not only do you have another brain working on that problem, but you now have the combination of the two of you. Another strategy is to change the problem itself. There's a lot of ways that you can change a problem. For example, you can create hypothetical thought experiments. Let's say the problem is dealing with very small numbers, but you may change the problem to deal with very large numbers and see if it changes the way you think about it. Or as we've talked about on the show before, imagine shifting some metric of time. Let's say that you have an unreasonable deadline and you don't know how you're going to get things done before them. Perhaps you can imagine that you move the deadline out. Well now how does that change how you would solve the problem? Or maybe you change the scope of the problem itself. Maybe the problem is incredibly broad or complex. Slice the problem up into its subparts, smaller problems. Imagine that you have parts of it already solved, even if they are still the complex parts. How does that change the landscape of the problem itself? You can also shift yourself, your perspective in time. Imagine that you've already solved the problem. What kinds of things are true? How do you know that you've solved the problem? Another effective way to kind of inspect a given problem and change the relationship that you have with that problem is to describe the problem with new language. This is particularly effective if you can use some rules of logic. To a simple example from the medical profession, imagine that someone tasks you with making sure that 99.5% of all patients who come into the hospital have their temperature checked. Well, you may look at it from a different angle that is logically identical. Reduce the number of people who don't have their temperature checks to 0.5%. Remember you can say it a different way. For every 200 people, only one person can go without having their temperature checked. Now, you can see why this changes your approach. Instead of trying to keep your numbers up, you can think about keeping other numbers down. And more specifically, now that you're dealing with an explicit number, one out of 200, instead of thinking about percentages, you can think about concrete policies or concrete action you might take. Refraising the problem or reframing the problem, in combination with cutting the problem in half, right, making the problem smaller or reducing the complexity, these can be incredibly powerful ways of changing your perspective of the problem itself. Finally, one of the most effective strategies that you can employ when you are totally blocked is to get away from the problem. Get away and go for a walk or get a good night's sleep, drink a little bit of water. Remind yourself that you are still dependent on your physicality. In other words, you are not a computer. Your body is not existing alongside your brain. Your brain is affected and is a part of your body. So, sometimes the most important thing you can do for your brain is give it a rest. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. Thank you again to Linode for sponsoring today's episode. You can get $20 worth of credit by heading over to slash Developer Tea and using the promo code Developer Tea 2020 when you create your new Linode account. Thanks so much for listening to this episode. I encourage you to go and subscribe and whatever podcasting app you are currently using, but also, don't forget, there are other incredible shows on the SPEC network, head over to to listen to more incredible content that is built specifically for you as a designer or developer looking to level up in your career. Today's episode was produced by Sarah Jackson. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.