The maze book for programmers!

Algorithms, circle mazes, hex grids, masking, weaving, braiding, 3D and 4D grids, spheres, and more!

DRM-Free Ebook

The Buckblog

assorted ramblings by Jamis Buck

Changing the Channel

3 October 2015 — Looking at something familiar in a different way can help remove mental and creative roadblocks — 3-minute read

Stuck? Try changing the channel.

No, seriously. It’s like if you’re watching TV and you’re feeling uninspired by what you see, you change the channel. This doesn’t change the TV at all–you’re still staring at the same screen, in the same plastic chassis–but now you’re seeing something different in it.

I’ve used this trick in some studying I’ve been doing lately (Isaiah is a tough nut to crack). Any time I’m reading something that makes no sense, or which seems to lack any deep significance, I’ll pause and read it over again a few times.

Then I start to change the channel.

I’ll begin looking up the words in a dictionary–even the easy ones, the ones that I think I know well, because it is often the simplest assumptions that bear the most fruit. I’ll turn to other tools, as well: synonyms are great for looking at something from unexpected angles. Etymologies, too.

(Etymologies are my favorite, actually. For instance, did you know that “escape” derives from the Latin word excappare? It literally means “get out of one’s cape”–as if to leave your pursuer holding nothing but your cloak! Or did you know that “lord” and “lady” derive from Old English words meaning “keeper of the bread”, and “kneader of the bread”? Language is cool.)

This works great in other contexts, too. For instance, I’ve learned different ways to “change the channel” when I get stuck while writing. I might do some brainstorming or freewriting, either of which keeps the momentum going. (Losing momentum while writing is creative suicide.) I can also try different formulas for plotting the story: the three-act structure, the Hollywood formula, Hero’s Journey, and so forth. Or the Snowflake Method for growing a story. Or writing the same event from multiple points of view.

Each of these changes the channel for me. It works, I think, because it forces me to identify an assumption (perhaps not even explicitly), and then tweak it. Mutate it a little. I can play “what if” games with it, plugging new perspectives in, new concepts, mixing and matching until I find a connection that works for me.

(The Creative Whack Pack card deck is awesome for this. There’s an app for it, too–worth every penny. Just have it grab a random card for you when you need a little creative jolt.)

This technique works in software development, as well. Have you coded yourself into a corner? Or maybe you’re paralyzed trying to decipher (or invent) some requirements? Perhaps there is a bug that you’re having trouble nailing down.

Change the channel. Find a new way to think about the problem. In software, maybe that means bringing some new eyes on to look it over with you. Or maybe you explain the problem out loud to a teddy bear or rubber duck on your desk. Maybe try listening to some different music, or contemplate how the implementation might look in a different environment or language. Try drawing it–sketch the implementation somehow, maybe a flow chart, or perhaps something more abstract and impressionistic.

Experiment. Give yourself permission to try something new. The new perspective may be just what you need to get out of the rut you’re in.

Go ahead. Change the channel!