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The Learning Curve

Improve your problem-solving with elastic thinking

Elastic thinking can reveal the assumptions that hamstring our ability to solve seemingly intractable problems.
Credit: Who is Danny / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • People’s default mode is to reason from a problem toward an answer. 
  • But problems often hide assumptions that can stymie progress toward a viable solution.
  • Elastic thinking can open your mind to these assumptions, improving your problem-solving in life and work.

Riddle me this! Why do riddles stump at first but then seem obvious in hindsight? It’s because riddles play off your ingrained assumptions about how problems are supposed to be diagnosed and solved

Consider this classic: How far can you walk into a forest? Initially, it seems as though the answer depends on the size of the forest. You want to pull out an extra-long measuring tape, break the forest down into measurable units, and solve for 𝑥. 

But if you question your gut reaction and reframe the problem, the solution becomes apparent. It’s not a math problem; it’s a question of perception and language. Then it hits you. Halfway! Any farther, and you’re walking out. To reach that answer, you have to flex your mind and make it more pliable, a process theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow calls elastic thinking. And in his book Elastic, he describes how it can help you solve more than just riddles.

An exercise in elasticity

When presented with a problem, people’s default mode is to reason from that point toward a solution. But as Mlodinow told us in a Big Think+ interview, this approach can sometimes lead to frustration because it’s your understanding of the problem itself that’s blinding you to viable options.

“Sometimes the solution to a challenge in life isn’t clever thinking, it’s to step back and look at the problem, not the solution, and then you’ll realize that you had some hidden assumption or some assumption that you could relax that you didn’t realize, and that will change everything,” he said.

He pointed to riddles and puzzles, such as the mutilated checkerboard, as exercises in elastic thinking’s potency. These mind-benders require you to open your mind, break free from your assumptions, and make novel connections to seemingly unrelated ideas and facts. He demonstrated this with the following riddle:

Marjorie and Margie were born of the same mother and father on the same day of the same month at the same hour, and yet they are not twins. How is that possible?

Much like the riddle that opened this article, if you limit your thinking to the information presented in the problem, your biases and implicit assumptions will hide the answer from you. You have to interrogate those assumptions and look for clues that may lie outside the frame of your mental image.

While only two girls are mentioned in the problem, that doesn’t mean that their parents only had two daughters during that fateful and exhausting hour. Then comes the eureka moment: They’re triplets! (Possibly quadruplets, but for the mother’s sake, we’ll stop our train of thought there.)

Baby girl triplets in a crib together.
With a little elastic thinking, the answer to Mlodinow’s riddle becomes clear. The girls are triplets. (Credit: Melissa King / Adobe Stock)

Elastic thinking: A business case

This flexible mode of thought is useful for solving some problems in real life, too. For example, business leaders have a concept known as “change aversion.” Put simply, it’s the belief that people hate new things and will react adversely to any change in the workplace.

But as Mlodinow notes in his book, this belief is founded on a false assumption. Employees don’t have a problem with positive changes that improve their lives or work conditions. Who would?

What they have a negative reaction to is, well, rotten changes. And because so many business leaders wait until things are going wrong to initiate change  — more work, less time, ever-shifting goalposts, and so on — they mistakenly perceive employee revulsion as a knee-jerk response to all changes.

The result is a series of misguided solutions designed to combat so-called “change aversion.” One such strategy is to couch news of a change in ambiguous language. But employees have long since deciphered this corporate jargon. They know pivoting, restructuring, and heavy lifts simply mean more headaches for them.

Instead, leaders should tap into elastic thinking and reframe the problem. It’s not a question of how to deliver news about change; it’s a question of the type of change being delivered. 

Rather than leaning on the status quo until an undesirable change must be instituted, leaders should develop a culture of continuous improvement. If most changes run in a favorable direction, then employees will be more willing to shoulder a negative one when it comes around.

The riddle of time famine

For a more personal use case of elastic thinking, look to time management. You’re no doubt already familiar with the riddle of time famine — that is, there’s so much to do and so little time. The go-to solution for many is to micromanage their days to ensure every activity has a slice of schedule to call its own.

If you’ve ever tried this strategy, then you know the outcome is less than advertised. When your schedule is stuffed to breaking with activities, even your leisure time feels like an obligation — or worse, work. You can’t enjoy yourself because you always have one eye on the clock, your mind already jetting off to the next compulsory to-do.

A man uses his calendar app to schedule his many, many activities.
Elastic thinking also shows us that the answer to the question of time famine isn’t a better calendar app. (Credit: NicoElNino / Adobe Stock)

Elastic thinking and you

Reframe the problem with elastic thinking, however, and you may notice an implicit assumption driving your decisions. Your schedule habits view all activities as equal. Your work time, your downtime, your family time, your social life, it’s all part of the same gelatinized glob of time you call your day.

But these aspects of your life are unique, and they require different mindsets and approaches to be successful. So, what if you adjusted your schedule to suit the inherent differences of these activities?

That’s the conclusion of time-management experts Selin A. Malkoc and Gabriela Tonietto. In their 2018 study, they reasoned that when you schedule leisure activities like work ones, the former take on the qualities of the latter. Leisure becomes just another goal to check off the list and not something to enjoy for its own sake.

Their recommendation is to use “rough scheduling.” Give yourself an open window of time without “the strict beginning and end times [that] disrupts the free-flowing nature of leisure activities.” This open-ended nature allows you to be more in the moment. Conversely, you’ll want to keep hard stops for your work activities, so they don’t bleed into your personal life.

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Is that the only solution to the problem of time famine? No, but it does demonstrate how elastic thinking can open our minds to those options that were once out of sight.

“That happens in life too, that sometimes the answer is easy once you question your assumptions, and that’s a key to elastic thinking,” Mlodinow said.

Learn more on Big Think+

With a diverse library of lessons from the world’s biggest thinkers, Big Think+ helps businesses get smarter, faster. To access Leonard Mlodinow’s expert class for your organization, request a demo.