School & District Management Opinion

From Problem Solver to Innovator: Is the Answer to Disconnect?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 03, 2016 5 min read
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Being connected has become the gold standard. The ability to communicate synchronously or asynchronously can speed the processes of sharing information and of getting things done. It changes the concept of a work day, a work week, and a holiday. The Internet doesn’t shut down so now we don’t either. Can’t sleep? Up in the middle of the night? Have a thought? Rather than jotting it down and taking care of it tomorrow, you can go right to the computer and send off an email. For some, that doesn’t even mean getting out of bed; it can be done by reaching over to the nightstand where the smartphone or iPad is charging and send it from there. While you are up, and on the digital device of choice, you might notice an email from someone that peaks your curiosity and so you read it then. Then you might check your social bookmarking site and catch up on blogs before going back to sleep. All of this can happen in the middle of the night. Have you ever noticed the time stamps on some of the emails you receive?

One who is not as connected might ask why the smartphone is charging next to the bed. The connected one will answer; it is also my alarm clock and the flashlight I need when I get up and don’t want to disturb my partner’s sleep. And, most of us are used to sleeping with a phone nearby. The kids are out late, an aging parent may have an emergency, and we are at the ready. And for professional reasons, superintendents, principals, and building and grounds folks need the phone nearby for those weather emergencies that are always in the wee hours of the morning.

The smartphone complicates the joy and ease of connection because we can’t walk away from what is in our pocket or on our nightstand. While maximizing its use, we may be playing music, following a recipe, doing an observation, or looking up directions when we notice an email arrives and we are on. We can even code the phone sounds to differentiate among those who text, call, and write us. Whether it is responsibility or curiosity that spikes, we leave the moment and enter another one triggered by the phone’s alert. Even ignoring curiosity takes energy.

When the holidays were approaching we had a conversation about whether to post between Christmas and New Year. On one hand, we feel a commitment to publish often and regularly. On the other hand, we wonder if stepping away from the rhythm of writing and posting three times a week would affect anything at all. After all, our readers had a school break during these days. Even if at work, the pace is usually different and the time spent is more relaxed. Might we model that taking time away to spend with family and friends, and even alone, was a reward and a balance to the intensity of everyday? What affect would taking a break have on us?

Taking a Break
Ultimately, we made our personal decision to not post between the holidays except for one guest piece that seemed consistent with our break decision, a blog on mindfulness. This led to wondering about whether there was actually any scientific support for our intuition about the importance of breaks. It turns out there is quite a bit. Here is some insight from psychologists and neuroscientists Benjamin Baird, Jonathan Smallwood, Michael D. Mrazek, Julia W.Y. Kam, Michael S. Franklin, and Jonathan W. Schooler’s research on how the mind best solves problems. They reported in “Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation” that ...

Anecdotes of individuals solving problems after relinquishing the effort to solve them date back millennia. Indeed, many influential scientific thinkers—including Newton, Poincaré, and Einstein—claim to have had their moments of inspiration while engaged in thoughts or activities not deliberately aimed at solving the problem they were trying to solve. A key question that arises from such examples is whether engaging in any type of unrelated cognition increases the frequency of creative solutions, or whether the thoughts that yield such insights have specific features. ... The study reported here demonstrated that taking a break involving an undemanding task improved performance on a classic creativity task (the UUT)* far more than did taking a break involving a demanding task, resting, or taking no break.

In a business that calls for its leaders and teachers to be problem solvers all of the time, it seems that staying on task and doing what needs to be done may not lead to anything more than solving the problem at hand. Since we hold the work close and it is always somewhere in our thinking, allowing attention to disconnect may just be the route to more innovative solutions. Then, disconnecting creates the space for attention to other things, allowing the mind to wander into new places and attend to something else. It is not just about taking a break for the sake of rest and renewal alone, though we applaud the value of that as well. It is about creating space in which inspiration can arise. In those moments, we are surprised by a unexpected thought, a solution that just might work, and we wonder where it came from.

When Einstein was stymied while working out General Relativity, he would pull out his violin and play Mozart until he could reconnect to what he called the harmony of the spheres (Isaacson, p. 5).

Ah, yes, using both sides of our brains matters. Being connected does allow for more information to come and go, reaching out electronically to say hello takes less time than writing a letter, sending a post card, or making a call. Being connected does allow for learning and sharing all of the time. But the pull toward its use is powerful and can become a hyper-focused attraction. The ability to fully attend to another activity can hold the possibility for innovative ideas and thoughts to arise. Using technology as the extraordinary tool that it can be and not allowing it to distract is key. If Einstein worked out General Relativity while playing a violin, perhaps we might find new answers to old problems by simply disconnecting for a while.

*Unit Under Test

Isaacson, W. (2014). The Innovators: How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Illustration courtesy of 123rf.com.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.