Nowadays, it is almost unfashionable to spend time thinking, but looking sideways at seemingly non-relevant areas is potentially very fertile. Mike Teasdale offers techniques to help think of a solution to a problem, beyond a nap or run.

I’ve just woken up from a nap. Not one of those unintentional early-afternoon dozes where you wake up slumped in an armchair with a slightly stiff neck and some worthy reading material strewn on your lap. Those naps creep up on you and make you feel worse. No, a planned nap. A lie down. I find it a useful technique when I need a break from thinking about a work problem. I often wake up from that kind of nap with promising ideas.

For me, a nap works in the same way as going for a run. My thinking is helped by doing something completely different to thinking.

Of course, nowadays it’s almost unfashionable to spend time thinking. So-called experts on LinkedIn implore us to spend time doing. Hustling, it seems, has become the new thinking. Indeed, books about the secrets of serial entrepreneurs often include the advice that successful people are not more successful than you or me, they just try more stuff. They try something, see if it works, learn from it, then they move on.

I can see the merit in not getting too wedded to any one line of thought until you know it’s worthy of attention. No one wants to get bogged down. However, at some point, you still need to do the hard yards of thinking. And it’s challenging work. Medical studies have shown that 70–80% of us find the task of thinking uncomfortable. Turns out, connecting the unconnected through association wears us out once we are no longer four years old.

The good news is there are techniques we can adopt to help. Here’s what I use to help me think of a solution to a problem (beyond having a nap or a run).

First, I focus on the problem rather than the solution. Can I frame the problem differently? You have more chance of thinking of a solution if you spend time thinking differently about the problem. I used to help Unilever with the thankless task of flogging margarine to a world that wants butter. My favourite articulation of the key problem facing margarine was “we are made by chemists while the competition is made by cows”. It’s a powerful way of expressing the lack of perceived naturalness that holds margarine sales back. And it launches you into interesting thinking about creative solutions. Do you ape butter’s naturalness, or do you undermine it?

Second, I learn more stuff. This is not about distracting myself. It’s about boosting my chances. Your ability to combine information in diverse ways increases as you increase the amount of information you know. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it does wonders for your ability to think differently.

Looking sideways at seemingly non-relevant areas is potentially very fertile. Sometimes that can happen by chance. George de Mestral (the inventor of Velcro) got the idea for his patented fastener by noticing the burrs that stuck to his trouser leg during a walk in the woods.

Sometimes the decision to look sideways is deliberate. Doctors from the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children visited Italy to observe the Ferrari F1 pit crew in action. They wanted to learn about process mapping and choreographed teamwork. The result was a flow diagram which improved the handover procedure from the surgery theatre to the intensive care unit.

Third, I don’t overthink my solution. No matter how exponential your problem, the best solution will likely be incremental. As humans, we respond best to MAYA thinking: what is the most advanced yet acceptable solution to the problem we are grappling with?

As a young planner at BBH, the first time I was given responsibility for solving a strategic problem was on an obscure naval dark rum called Pusser’s Rum. It looks evil, but it tastes great. Its traditional open pot-stilled production means it’s full of organic impurities, and it’s these impurities that give the rum its unique flavour and fragrance. After about five minutes, I hit upon the notion of Pusser’s Rum being “the best tasting rum because it’s the least pure”. Simple. And a powerful start-point for creative development in a drinks category obsessed with purity. But as we got into reviewing creative executions, we found ourselves bogged down in debate about the best examples of organic impurity to feature. Only in an ad agency could you have people taking sides in a guava vs. mango fight! More than once we needed to remind ourselves not to overthink it and to keep it simple.

Right, I’m away. My little grey cells need a recharge after all this thinking. Time for a run, followed by a nap!