How Leaders Solve the Biggest Problem-Solving Problems

What’s your first reaction when you confront a problem?

Do you….

Identify it

define it

examine it

analyze it

seek solutions?

I want to ask you to try something NEW.

As a leader you are used to solving problems, I am to suggest don’t solve your biggest problems.

Recently, while conducting a workshop, I sat at a table with a group of intelligent leaders who were tackling a problem. As the trainer, it was my job to keep the group engaged in critical and strategic thinking.

But this group was stuck—stuck in their ideas, discussion, dialogue, and conversation. We were approaching the 45-minute mark, and they were just going around in circles.

I said, “Everyone, let’s stop this discussion. We’re taking a break. Put down your pens, leave your phones, and let’s get out of here.”

I had prepared by bringing some sports equipment. Excited as kids at a chance to play outside, they were quickly caught up in a rousing game of wiffle ball.

By the time I called them back in a short time later, everyone was relaxed and enjoying themselves. Even before they had a chance to sit down, I asked, “How do we tackle this issue? What do we do next?”

And it all came together. They had a direction, and they were all in agreement.

This is not news for anyone who has done coaching or consulting with teams. Taking a break is good science.

[quote]People who have been distracted perform better on a complex problem-solving task than those who put in nonstop conscious effort.[/quote]

So the next time you have a thorny problem:

  • Don’t tackle it.
  • Don’t keep identifying it.
  • Don’t examine it to death.
  • Don’t keep coming up with strategies.
  • Don’t keep gathering information.

Take a break and allow your mind to rest. Find something to do. Distract yourself.

When you come back you will see your problems and issues with fresh eyes. In just a few minutes, you can reach new breakthroughs, new reactions, new ways of looking at things. Allow your conscious mind to relax and you will find a better, faster, smarter way to approach your problem.

Now imagine the increase in problem solving that could occur if your team, or your whole organization, started to apply this principle.

There are so many things we have misunderstood about the mind.

As someone who believes in leading from within, I am a big advocate of letting the mind rest and allowing the heart to speak.

And as someone who is always looking for insight, I suspect that letting go of what we know—of our need to always be solving, analyzing, defining—can lead us to new identifications, new solutions, and new meaning.  

Lets give our minds a break and let our hearts speak with fortitude.

Lead from within: The next time you are up against a problem you can’t solve, the next time you feel stuck, let it go and distract yourself.



N A T I O N A L   B E S T S E L L E R
The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness

After decades of coaching powerful executives around the world, Lolly Daskal has observed that leaders rise to their positions relying on a specific set of values and traits. But in time, every executive reaches a point when their performance suffers and failure persists. Very few understand why or how to prevent it.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

Lolly Daskal is one of the most sought-after executive leadership coaches in the world. Her extensive cross-cultural expertise spans 14 countries, six languages and hundreds of companies. As founder and CEO of Lead From Within, her proprietary leadership program is engineered to be a catalyst for leaders who want to enhance performance and make a meaningful difference in their companies, their lives, and the world.

Of Lolly’s many awards and accolades, Lolly was designated a Top-50 Leadership and Management Expert by Inc. magazine. Huffington Post honored Lolly with the title of The Most Inspiring Woman in the World. Her writing has appeared in HBR,, Fast Company (Ask The Expert), Huffington Post, and Psychology Today, and others. Her newest book, The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness has become a national bestseller.

  1. Martina

    30. Apr, 2013

    Excellent post, Lolly.

    Yes, the longer we stew over an issue that seems to have no recolution, the more likely we are to believe that there is no answer, and rehash the same solutions over and over. We live in a driven society, and so we have lost touch with the need to play, make down time, step away and come back with fresh eyes and with rested and invigorated neurons.

    This playtime that you devised also helps us see outside of our siloed thinkig. There is always more than one way to solve a dilemma, and if you look at what other people are doing around you, you will often stumble upon some new way of viewing things.

    And, whiffle ball? What a great idea. Its the type of game that also takes the need for competition down a couple of notches.

    Reply to this comment
  2. lollydaskal

    30. Apr, 2013


    What a treat to see your insights on my articles. I always look forward to reading them.

    It is true what you say the longer we stew the more lost we can become.

    D I S T R A C T Y O U R S E L F.

    the best way to move forward is to stop moving in the same direction.

    Come back with new vision and new energy.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Tempella Guernsey

    30. Apr, 2013

    I hate when others view ME as THE problem to solve. Those relationships quickly go south when that mindset prevails.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Brian R (@BMRideas)

    30. Apr, 2013

    Great post here, Lolly. This is similar to the problem that happens when you are heads down for too long. You are hyper-focused on the issue at hand. Frustration ensues and progress halts. I’ll confess a funny story that happened a year or so ago…

    I was working on my daughter’s tricycle. The seat had become dislodged. I gathered my tools in the driveway, sat down, and got to work. The bolts were in a tight spot, too big for my hands. Once I got the seat off, I made an adjustment and set out to reattach. Then I over-tightened a nut and the bolt snapped. Frustrated, I drove down to the hardware store, bought a bunch of bolts and nuts, and returned to the driveway project.

    Off with the seat again, scraped my knuckles again – now I was rushing. Head down, I needed to finish this annoying task. I was super focused and almost done.
    When I finally lifted my head to examine my “job well done”, much to my surprise, I had screwed the seat on backwards.

    Laughing, I took a picture to remind myself of the lesson:

    Focus is good, but don’t forget to look up regularly to see the big picture.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      30. Apr, 2013


      What a great story.

      I am laughing at the computer and I have similar stories in my life.

      Thanks for story….


      Reply to this comment
  5. Ashutosh

    30. Apr, 2013

    Thanks Lolly for sharing your thoughts.

    Whatever you have expressed is completely true and at time, I have applied the same principle. Its better to take short breaks between our work.

    The problem is that it works with us, the people who don’t have a boss but in office or workplace, where you are working under someone the the situation is different.

    In workshops it goes fine but its too hard to convince your boss that a short break may ignite the creative juices flowing. I wish that more and more bosses read this informative article. Luckily, I have no boss and so I am free to take breaks and find solution to my problems.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      30. Apr, 2013

      We can always tell our bosses we need REFLECTIVE TIME.
      Instead of saying I need a DISTRACTION.
      What do you think?

      Reply to this comment
  6. Ashutosh

    30. Apr, 2013


    Well, we can no doubt say ANYTHING that we like but the real question is Do They Really Listen!

    Reply to this comment
  7. Wayne McEvilly

    30. Apr, 2013

    Over the fence and out of the park.
    You’ve hit another homer with this one.
    “Taking a break is good science.” It truly is. And the variations that we can play on that theme approach infinity.
    Thank you.

    Reply to this comment
  8. Karin Hurt

    30. Apr, 2013

    Lolly, I am strong believer in distraction.. it works for teams, and also for me personally. If I get stuck writing, I take a run in the woods, and always come out unstuck… It’s like Monty Python, sometimes we just need “something completey different.”

    Reply to this comment
  9. Susan Bodiker

    30. Apr, 2013

    Finding creative solutions to business problems/challenges is what I do for a living and my blog is devoted to exploring creativity in all things. Here are some more ideas:

    Reply to this comment
  10. Col Ravi (Retd)

    30. Apr, 2013


    Thanks a ton for the article. It is so practical to avoid stress and at times Anger, which I feel is nothing but degree of frustration within us.

    Reply to this comment
  11. Martin Haworth PCC (@mphcoach)

    30. Apr, 2013

    ‘Slack’ by Tom DeMarco is a great book that identifies the value that corporations are finding when they give their people time to do not much at all. That’s when the creativity begins…

    Reply to this comment
  12. Agbana Olorunfemi

    30. Apr, 2013

    This is a great post. Our mind becomes weak from overwork. And a weak mind will always produce a weak result. We need purposeful distraction to recharge our mind.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply to this comment
  13. Terri Klass

    30. Apr, 2013

    A wonderful post, Lolly! I am a believer in switching gears when things aren’t working. I try to choose an activity to do that is totally different from what I might be so focused on. Working with groups like you, I too have experienced “roadblocks” which can derail a program. Walking away is a great idea and opens our minds to amazing possibilities that were stuck inside of us. Thanks again!

    Reply to this comment
  14. Judi

    30. Apr, 2013

    Such a good reminder!!! Slow down, step away … the solution will come!

    Reply to this comment
  15. Nancy Settle-Murphy

    30. Apr, 2013

    Lolly, I read your post after coming in from a long walk with my dog, which I took for the express purpose of getting new ideas for a client workshop I am designing, and to percolate ideas for my next ezine. A one-hour walk to unfurl my mind achieved far more than four hours staring at my screen this morning. Great post! Love the whiffle ball idea, too!

    Reply to this comment
  16. Alan Allard

    30. Apr, 2013

    Really good insights and advice Lolly. If what we’re doing isn’t working, going at it “harder” or longer isn’t going to work better. Giving my body, subconscious mind and brain a break is me saying “I trust you to work on this without me micro-managing the process or trying to force it.

    Reply to this comment
  17. Dan

    30. Apr, 2013

    How counter-intuitive but also how pragmatic. I love to get someplace I can take a picture or two, enjoy the sun. My mind’s still working the problem — “delegation to the subconscious,” I say.

    When we’ve worn things barren on the surface, we need to let go and let a deeper form of intelligence find the way!

    Reply to this comment
  18. Tom Rhodes

    30. Apr, 2013


    As per the norm, this is a wonderful post. I often find that I come up with my best ideas and solutions when they weren’t my original focus. Often times I analize things to much and don’t just left the heatt and mind flow. They can be a wonderful team when working together and a roadblock when going in different directions. Thank you again for helping me get back on track to Leading from Within.

    Reply to this comment
  19. Dr R.c. Mishra

    01. May, 2013

    wonderful post

    Reply to this comment
  20. Bill | LeadershipHeartCoaching

    01. May, 2013

    Hi Lolly,
    I live in Silicon Valley and it’s a remarkable sight to go somewhere during the day and see large numbers of individuals taking breaks from their cubicles – out for walks.

    Sometimes in groups of 2-3, but many are walking solo. You just know they are out trying to clear their heads. I think it’s an unwritten Silicon Valley secret amongst engineers.

    Although I walk too, what has helped me take mental breaks has been a practice of meditation. I found 20 minutes or so in the morning helps center my thoughts throughout the day.

    Reply to this comment
  21. dawoodchishti

    01. May, 2013

    “Don’t solve your problems” reflects clarity of your thoughts and smartness of your mind..
    Lolly, Your flag may continue to fly high up to sky!

    Reply to this comment
  22. Jim

    01. May, 2013

    GREAT post! Love it! Having been in and out of the war room many times…frustrated…spent…over-focused into a migraine, this was a great read! I’ve found that environment for problem solving needs to be “light” also. A firm I worked with for quite some time had a game room…ping pong table, etc. Those 10 minute breaks are so valuable! Of course…having a whiteboard in the room for those spurts of consciousness helped a great deal also.
    Thank you so much for all you do,

    Reply to this comment
  23. ridgididg

    02. May, 2013

    In heartfelt agreement with you Lolly. My brain is not my own.. I came to understand that many years ago. There is very little capacity for analysis. It is best not to trifle with it too much. Best to feed it the facts, concerns and information and sleep on it. In the morning, or next week or next month it will provide you with a solution, or not. If not, the solution was probably not available. Thank you for the topic. Good to see so many ways of approaching problems.

    Reply to this comment
  24. Carolina Gorosito | Astrolabe

    02. May, 2013

    Excellent, Lolly! We tend to focus so much sometimes and really lose the point, like an optical illusion.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Greetings from Argentina.

    Reply to this comment
  25. JoAnn Corley

    02. May, 2013

    Lolly – so glad you wrote this. I conduct Creative & Innovative thinking workshops across the country – and we learn that solving a problem is by not thinking about it and giving the subconscious mind a chance to “percolate”…. my favorite line, ” We get to work without working! The mind is a marvelous tool, resource and natural computer! –

    Reply to this comment
  26. James Strock

    03. May, 2013

    Terrific post, Lolly. When one steps away from a problem that’s become, for the time, intractable, it can give the subconscious some space to go to work. This may also be seen in the ideas and solutions that arise during and after sleep…..

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      05. May, 2013


      you are right its about the unconscious become unconscious. As you mention its going to sleep and awakening with new solutions.
      Thanks for sharing your insight and wisdom.

      Reply to this comment
  27. Jeff Glover

    05. May, 2013

    Well put Lolly! This concept not only works in the workplace but also translates to the school setting as well. If only more teachers, like bosses, were empowered to disrupt their classrooms and not have to command their classroom to concentrate on test taking ad nauseum. It is well documented that some of the most profound innovative ideas have come while “on a stroll” or after coming back from a mind clearing experience. Thanks for the insight.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      05. May, 2013

      You are so right Jeff, great ideas do come while strolling and other distractions.

      We need to keep talking about these ideas so they catch on.

      Reply to this comment
      • Jeff Glover

        05. May, 2013

        Absolutely! Love to keep the conversation going. I think businesses are getting this concept sooner because the understand how it affects their bottom line. Schools, on the other hand, seem to be going in the opposite direction. More tests, which is good for accountability, but less creativity and empowering which is bad for inspiring leaders.

        Reply to this comment

    07. May, 2013


    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      08. May, 2013

      Listening to your heart does not of course mean we should abandon our duties to others

      Life is about paradoxes its about receiving and giving.

      its about creating balance.

      Leading and loving.

      Reply to this comment
  29. Gary

    22. Jun, 2013

    I loved the post. We are much better prepared for life when we are in a state of ease, childlike wonder and anticipation. Whatever life throws at us, we can respond; even if the events come at us like a whiffle ball.

    Reply to this comment
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  36. Laura

    06. Aug, 2015

    Great ideas. I think, however, that the secret doesn’t lie in “go distract yourself” but in “go play.” Playfulness in all it’s many forms is what has advanced humanity in the arts, sciences, design, and much more. We all have too many distractions, few of us have enough play.

    Reply to this comment
  37. Teen

    25. Sep, 2015

    Great strategy! I have found this method to be most effective. I laugh because so many times I have set in meetings that have been null & void…the leader was ineffective because he/she wouldn’t call a “time out.” Needless to say, no timeout and no resolution after 2 hours of discussion. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply to this comment
  38. Marc Zazeela

    25. Feb, 2016


    Great story. I think some this also has to do with mindful thinking. You can easily get stuck by becoming fixated on what has happened (the past) and equally fixated on the consequences (future).

    Your game of wiffle ball, gave everyone a chance to focus on the present, instead. That gives pause in our cycle of negativity and allows us to be more creative and innovative in our problem solving.

    Thanks again.

    Reply to this comment

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