I want to draw a distinction between mental tinkering and planning. It’s kind of subtle because to an observer they both look the same – you’re just doing work in your head and maybe on a piece of scratch paper. However, I think the difference is huge. My distinction is that planning locks you onto a path, narrowing options, while mental tinkering expands them.

I find that many people’s instinct is to spend most of their ‘thinking time’ planning and not much doing some mental tinkering. At first pass this makes sense, because by pruning down the options, you move toward a single path of actions. But if you ask the right questions during mental tinkering (for me, it’s mostly just questions) you can basically cheat and completely bypass steps that originally would have seemed necessary for any plan. Kind of like certain pipes in Mario.

Two of the most useful questions:

Whenever I find myself asking ‘how do I…’ I stop and first ask ‘do I need to?’ For example, I needed to put a new end cap on an air track. The old one was so snugly lodged into the track that it wouldn’t budge outwards.  The tinkering began with ‘How do I get this out?’ because clearly you need to get rid of the old thing to replace it.  But then I asked ‘Do I need to get this out?’ If I just tapped it in a few inches, it wouldn’t be in the way of anything or do any damage. By expanding the question I’m pretty sure I saved at least an hour.

The next big one is ‘has someone done this before?’ This goes for the big problem you’re working on, but more often for sub-problems. It’s very tempting to see a an issue, come up with your own (clearly brilliant) solution and then work on how to implement that solution. However, if you know where to look (that’s another story) someone has probably run into a version of your problem and can keep you from burning time reinventing the wheel.

I’m also not against planning: eventually you need a plan of action. I just recommend spending some of that thinkin’ time expanding your horizons before you narrow them down.