What Do You Do When You’re Stuck on a Problem?

We encounter problems all the time. Some we can resolve on our own in a couple of minutes. Some take more time, and/or we can’t resolve them alone. What do you do then?

I’ve had a policy for about twenty years for when I become stuck. If I’m stuck for more than twenty minutes, it’s time for me to get some help. I might spend another short timebox searching the web if I don’t think I’ve encountered a dead end. More often, I ask other people for help.

You might think twenty minutes isn’t a lot of time. For me, it’s huge. I work in small chunks, normally anywhere from twenty minutes to one hour. Being stuck for twenty minutes can set me back a significant part of the day. I want to ask for help before I’ve wasted too much time.

You’ll notice I said I timeboxed my web searching. It’s easy to become distracted by searching. I uncover interesting facts that tend to wander from or are tangential to my original problem. I like reading about those things, but that reading doesn’t help me solve my problem. If I don’t track my searching time, I can end up in Student Syndrome, where I have procrastinated until the last possible moment—or after.

I have found that I can ask for help in these ways:

  • Call a colleague (or two or three)
  • Email a colleague (or two or three)
  • IM a colleague
  • Email a mailing list

One thing I don’t often do is set aside the problem, thinking I will return to it later. If I’ve already spent twenty minutes thinking about a problem and I am not able to solve it, I don’t want to postpone work on that problem.

But what if no one returns my call, email, or IM right away? In that case, I write down everything I’ve tried. I put that item in my Pen (the column in a personal kanban where you wait for people to return your call or email) and continue on to my next chunk of work.

I don’t let the thing I’m stuck on bother me all day. It’s not worth it. I know that someone will return my call/email/IM eventually, so I can continue onto something else.

If you are in a team, you have more options than I do. You can walk over to a colleague and ask if this is a good time for a conversation, and when it is, you can ask your question. You might pair so that you have a lower likelihood of being stuck.

Being stuck slows your project. Even worse, it can pick at your self-esteem. It’s OK to not know the answer. But it’s not OK to be stuck for a long time, not accomplishing anything.

The next time you’re stuck, give yourself a timebox to solve the problem alone. Then, consider one of these ideas or create another idea for how you will “unstick” yourself. You’ll discover your problem-solving skills improve.

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