This Surprising Toy Can Help You Problem Solve at Work
Some days, it seems like personal challenges and work obstacles just keep piling up, leaving even the most motivated person feeling uninspired or stuck. Are you in need of a new tactic to ease your frustrations or find a solution to a tough problem? Author and professor Dr. Loretta Breuning, PhD, tells us that she swears by something that may sound a little strange at first: Keeping a rubber ducky on her desk, and talking to it when she feels annoyed, afraid, or unsure what to do.
Telling stuff to a plastic toy might not make sense at first, but according to Dr. Bruening, the verbal brain — or the words you think, say, and use — is part of your overall thought process. “The world floods your senses with detail, and you make sense of it by fitting it into the neural pathways you have,” she explains. “You aren’t born with neural pathways; they build from experience. We’re all unique! Even more, you don’t consciously fit reality into your old pathways; the electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. This is why your conscious mind can make it hard to untangle your thoughts.”
Even more, Dr. Bruening suggests that talking to a rubber ducky aloud can help you uncover new solutions when you feel stuck. Unlike when talking with a real person, you don’t have to worry about overexplaining, losing your thoughts to interruptions, or rationalizing your problem. “I learned this method from software engineers, who use it for tough debugging problems. It works because when you talk to the rubber ducky on your desk, you have to connect words to your thought patterns. This forces different regions in your brain to work together, and you’ll be able to come up with new ‘templates’ instead of relying on your old ones.”
Once you master the rubber ducky exercise and learn how to think and take action in ways you haven’t before, you’ll be in great shape to power past problems that tripped you up before (and maybe eventually not even need the duck itself). Here are three scenarios to try it out.
1. Tackle a technical problem. Dr. Bruening admits that technical problems stress her out, sharing that she feels like she’s “about to explode” when she can’t complete simple, routine tasks that are usually easy to check off her list. “I can’t stand it when I’ve tried everything and wasted a lot of time. My husband usually hears my groans and tries to help, but he knows nothing about the tools I use, and I end up feeling desperate as I try to explain. I’ve learned that, seemingly miraculously, as soon as I tell him the problem, I see my mistake and know how to fix it. I couldn’t understand how this happens until I heard about the rubber ducky debugging method. Now that I’ve learned it and understand, I ask my husband to act like my rubber ducky. Sometimes I serve as his rubber ducky too.”
2. Work out your feelings. Did you recently suffer a breakup? Or maybe you’re having a tough time with a friend, or feeling frustrated after a meeting that didn’t go as you hoped. “We all know how painful some situations can be,” Dr. Bruening acknowledges. “In these instances, you might feel tempted to call friends and tell them the story. But this can go wrong, because your friends might either agree with you to seem supportive or see the problem incorrectly through the lens of their own life experiences. When this happens, you might feel more stressed and have an even more complex problem to deal with.” Talking to your rubber ducky instead, Dr. Bruening promises, can help you see the right solution on your own. “You won’t feel obligated to honor anyone’s opinion that you’ve asked for if you disagree or to manage frustrating feelings if someone doesn’t understand. Instead, you can zero in on what brings you peace.”
3. Make an important decision. “Imagine that you have to make a difficult decision at work or at home — you feel stuck, so you ask a few people for opinions,” offers Dr. Bruening. “But what can you do if their opinions seem off-base or misguided to you? I used to end up with a let-down feeling, until I realized that I was disappointed with other insights because I already believed in my own insights. The reality is that other people never know the problem as well as you do because they don’t have all the facts.” Nowadays, Dr. Bruening tells us she talks to her rubber ducky instead, because it helps her establish new neural pathways. “Old pathways motivate us to seek support from others, but we don’t always like their input when we get it.” Use yours to hear your own voice loud and clear — it’s often the best one to help you make a decision anyway.
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