A wise man once said to me, “Stop in the middle of whatever you are doing, because when you return to it, you’ll be that much farther ahead.”
It seemed like an absurd idea, sort of like walking out of a movie before the ending. Things left unfinished. No resolution. No closure, only questions.
“But you see,” he continued, “that is exactly why you need to stop in the middle, because when you do, your brain searches for answers. In that searching, you rework the problem in your mind. You go over it again and again, trying to figure it out.”
By putting our need for answers on pause, stopping just before we get to the finish line, we give ourselves more time to think about the problem. We step back, broaden our lens, take everything in fully and see the problem much more clearly. We leave things unfinished.
When we do this, we understand the problem much more clearly, and we see parts of it we likely would have missed had we jumped to our conclusion when we wanted to.
“The trick is in waiting when you don’t want to,” he explained. “When you do this, you are less driven by your need for immediate answers and more driven by your desire for correct answers.”
Accuracy becomes more gratifying than immediacy. It is sort of like the famous marshmallow test. A young child is brought into a room and told that the researcher will return in three minutes and if there is one marshmallow left, he’ll receive another one. It is a challenge between one marshmallow right now, or two later.
Kids who can wait tend to do better on a host of achievement measures. Their impulse control proves to be a fundamental part of social, academic, psychological and athletic success.
The marshmallow test is not used for adults, but we face similar choices every day. We can spend the money we have now or invest it and have more later. We can send our resume out now, or we can wait, improve it, and send it out later when it looks a whole lot better. We can try to accomplish our goals as fast as we can, or we can enjoy the journey.
A problem solved now may not be a problem solved correctly. It may take more time to fully comprehend the problem than we want, but chances are, it is worth it. But we first have to be willing to leave things unfinished.