Got a problem? Sleep on it


SCIENTISTS at the University of Luebeck in Germany claim that they have demonstrated for the first time that our sleeping brains continue working on problems that perplex us during the day, and the right answer may come more easily after eight hours of rest.

The study is considered the first hard evidence supporting the common sense notion that creativity and problem solving appear to be directly linked to adequate sleep. Researchers say it provides a valuable reminder for overtired workers that sleep is often the best medicine.

The German verdict supports other research that says an hour’s nap at midday could significantly improve work performance in the afternoon.

However, while it is heartening to learn that a good night’s sleep or a day time nap might truly help solve problems, it is unrealistic to expect it to provide all the answers. And, even if you can convince your manager that you need to “sleep on it”, a snooze is not always easily scheduled in this era of immediacy. Even sleep’s greatest devotees are sceptical.

“While rest and relaxation help consolidate memories and sharpen thoughts, some people cannot sleep when wrestling with a problem anyway,” comments South African sleep expert, Dr Alison Bentley. “So, while sleep may assist in some instances, many find they need to solve problems before they can actually rest properly.”

When sleep is not an option or does not provide results, management consultants offer plenty of other problem-solving advice. They say that, while in most organisations, solving business or other work-related problems is the responsibility of management, it is never too early to start acquiring the necessary skills.

According to Ken Highfield, senior manager at KPMG Information Risk Management, the key to handling problems in a professional manner is not to let your emotions get in the way. Good problem solvers generally accept that solving problems is simply a way of life. Everyone is confronted with problems everyday. Some may be more minor than others, but nonetheless, they are problems.

“Try not to get too stressed out when solving problems,” he says. “You really should enjoy solving problems, for it lets you be creative. It is like a game. You get to choose the best route from several alternatives. The alternatives that you create are an expression of your creativity. Plus, successfully solving a problem makes you feel that much more confident. As a bonus, if a similar problem arises, you will be much more comfortable in dealing with it.”

Good problem solvers have a systematic approach. They are quick to recognize a problem and are not intimidated by it. These people analyse and examine the underlying causes before coming up with a solution and the means to achieving it. They also understand that quick solutions or hastily conceived plans rarely work and, at best, yield results that are short-term. In addition to this, adept problem solvers come up with backup plans, in case the original idea fails.

Highfield says competent executives expect crisis and are prepared for it. The crisis may be the result of bad employee relations, poor products or outdated technology. Whatever the case, however, the scenario is anticipated and the plan of action thought out ahead of time. This rule can come in handy for anyone, whether just starting a career or at a senior level.

“There are many ways to solve problems. If you really are in a bind and stuck, the best way is to speak with an expert on the subject. Solving problems may mean reading books and websites. On the other hand, do not go overboard with the reading, because if you overwork to solve a problem, it usually means that there is an easier way to solve it.”

In some instances, solving problems may mean delaying them for a later time when you have the resources and knowledge to handle them. Not all the problems of today must be solved today. You may be able to proceed gradually. Have some small conquests as you go your way in life. Leave other conquests for later. Eventually, you will conquer your big goal.

Solving problems can be intimidating. Experience, however, helps improve problem-solving skills and, with the successful resolution of each one, the process of solving problems becomes quicker and easier. And then of course, if all else fails, you can always sleep on it.

Problem-solving tips

• Ensure that you are well rested
• Do not get emotional
• Be systematic and simplify the problem
• Have fun finding solutions
• Glean insights from an expert
• Delay when required

(First published in Business Day.)

About Administrator

Author and freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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