I have a strong memory from childhood of going over to a friend’s house during the holidays and seeing that they had a big jigsaw puzzle on a card table. I thought it was so neat, but my friend shrugged and said, “Yeah, we always do a puzzle during Christmas holidays.” I thought this was the coolest thing ever. A family, sitting around, chatting, working on a big puzzle together. My family didn’t do any of those things. The memory stuck with me.
So this year I decided MY family would start this tradition. I bought a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of a painting of backyard birds, laid it out on the table, and told everyone, “We’re a PUZZLE family now!”
As strange as it may sound, I’ve never done a jigsaw puzzle. As we worked our way through it I kept having revelation after revelation, and learned a lot about myself, my mind, and life in general. Maybe this is all old news for jigsaw puzzle pros, but it was an eye-opening experience for me. Here are the key takeaways!
- Starting big projects is scary.
It’s fun to imagine and dream about what could be, but when it’s time to get down to work and make something real you have to cross through a valley of fear. You’re looking at thousands of small tasks, and you’re not sure which are important, which order to do them in, and how much time it will take.
What have I gotten myself into?
There’s a strong urge to turn away and do something more manageable. Instead of dwelling on how big the problem is, you just get to work on what you do know how to do. In the case of a puzzle, it’s finding the edge pieces. In the case of a big work project, it’s starting with the things you know and slowly building into the unknown, piece by piece.
- Your own misconceptions are your biggest enemy.
There were several times I got seriously derailed because I saw something that wasn’t really there. I would be 100% sure the tip of a flower petal was actually the tip of a bird’s wing, and waste a lot of time trying to make that piece work. Once you’ve decided something must be true, you get tunneled in and stop seeing all the signs that go against your misconception. Worst of all, when you’re operating with the wrong information, you don’t just mess up that one piece. All the actually correct pieces in the area now don’t “fit”, creating a fallout zone of error and confusion.
I can think of many times in my life when I got tunneled-in on a misconception and created a lot of trouble for myself and the people around me. Stay humble and be willing to give things you assume a second or third look.
- When you’re tired you’re stupid.
As you might be starting to see, I got way more into finishing the jigsaw puzzle than the rest of my family, and over the break found myself staying up late promising myself, “just one more piece.” Unsurprisingly, these were not very productive hours spent on the puzzle. When your brain is fatigued, you’re stupid. And insidiously, you’re too stupid to know how stupid you are. I found when I approached the puzzle the next day, a section that I was stuck on was completed quickly and without drama. It’s a concrete example of how persisting with work when your brain is done is a complete waste of resources. You miss out on much-needed rest and produce sub-par work which often has to be corrected the next day.
Pushing past the point of mental exhaustion doesn’t show how dedicated you are, it just showcases your inability to prioritize the right things at the right time. When you’re hitting a wall, pack it up and get some rest.
- Every project has a moment of despair.
About halfway through the puzzle, we had done all the easy stuff. All that was left was big patches of dark green with no discernible pattern.
That moment when the easy parts are done.
It was intimidating. No one worked on the puzzle for a full day. Finally, I sat down and dove into the problem, holding up piece by piece to the box art, looking for not just the colors but the shape of the piece, and step by step powered through the tough spot.
When your project hits its moment of despair (and it will), take the same approach. Narrow your field of view. Get your nose right up to the issue and focus on small wins. It’s painful and slow but step by step you’ll climb out of despair, break through the cloud line, and see the summit of completion beckoning to you.
- Problem solving is the equivalent of taking your brain to the dog park.
A family dog that’s kept indoors all day is an unhappy animal. Dogs are made to run, jump, and caper about. To keep dogs healthy, they need lots of walks, and nothing makes them happier than going to the dog park where they can fully express their nature. Your brain is the same way. It needs to be able to stretch its legs and get some carefree exercise from time to time.
Compare how you feel after mindlessly scrolling through your phone or watching TV to how you feel after solving a puzzle or completing a tricky task. When you’re entertaining yourself with passive media, the brain is quiet but dull, as if it’s been drugged. When you’re relaxing with active puzzle-solving your brain is quiet, but wide awake. After a session of phone scrolling or binge-TV you feel sluggish and unmotivated. After a session of problem-solving you feel light and energized.
To keep your brain happy and fit, take it to the dog park a few times a week. Find a problem which is engaging but not so difficult that progress can’t be made. It can be a puzzle-style activity, or even a work task which lets you flex your problem solving muscles.
When it was all said and done, my family finished the puzzle in about a week. We spent time together, we worked out problems as a team, and we got the satisfaction of seeing a challenge through to the end.
Complete! What a feeling!
On paper, it might seem like a waste of time, but this simple backyard bird puzzle was one of the most instructive activities I’ve done in months.
Keep these takeaways in mind as you work on your goals this year. Even the biggest projects are just a few thousand steps done one after another. The right piece is out there, and your brain is loving the challenge of finding it!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder