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Think back to a time when you had an “a-ha!” moment: you suddenly understood a difficult concept, solved a complicated puzzle, or had a creative breakthrough. If only you could have more! Alas, insights are like sneezes: you can’t force them. But you can ease them along — “tickle the mind,” as it were.

In his book Seeing What Others Don’t, Gary Klein provides a fascinating working definition of insight: “an unexpected shift to a better story.” In this case, “story” refers to cause-effect relationships: how we explain to ourselves how things happened or might happen.

You solve the puzzle by gaining a new understanding of the relationships between its elements. You experience a creative breakthrough after re-framing the situation. You understand the challenging concept after finding an analogy that integrates new ideas into your existing knowledge.

Yes, I’m talking about models: ideas about how things might be organized and how they might work. You experience insights when your models shift: you become aware of new concepts, relate existing concepts in new ways, change how you frame the whole, etc.

While you can’t force such shifts, you can ease their way by minding your model-making. Here are ten tactics that help:

  1. Give ideas time. Stop “thinking hard” about the problem and go for a walk or take a nap. Let the problem simmer in the back of your mind for a while. Like Archimedes, the solution might present itself when you least expect it.

  2. Give ideas space. Externalize your models by drawing concept maps, pasting sticky notes on a whiteboard, or using objects to represent concepts. Move things around; explore relations; poke and prod.

  3. Look for patterns. When you’ve externalized models, you can more easily spot recurring themes, structural constants, event cadences, and other patterns that suggest underlying causal relations.

  4. Look for gaps. Patterns might suggest missing concepts — or at least raise questions. What might be causing these relations? Who or what is imposing constraints? Image: scientists can’t observe black holes directly, but they can spot their effects on surrounding matter.

  5. Highlight curiosities. Look for outliers and contradictions. What breaks the pattern? What contradicts your observations? What makes you say, “isn’t that funny?” Lean into weird exceptions.

  6. Uncover latent connections. When you externalize your models, relations between some concepts will be apparent. But there might be connections you missed at first. Examine your stickies or diagrams to look for non-obvious relationships.

  7. Change perspectives. If you used sticky notes on a whiteboard, re-render the model as a concept map. If you drew a map, re-render it as an outline. Shifting between representation modes can suggest missing concepts and connections.

  8. Change frames. Consider the metaphors that underlie your understanding. For example, you might be framing the situation as a black hole. What if you thought of it as a drain instead? Try on different framings to explain what you see. Imagine the situation in a different context.

  9. Embrace happy accidents. A downside of thinking with computers is that they’re too predictable: input constrains output. A bit of chaos can help. Browse a random aisle in the library. Open yourself to serendipity. Oblique Strategy: “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.”

  10. Beginner’s Mind. You know too much. What would a novice do? What kinds of questions would they ask? Shunryū Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

This list isn’t comprehensive; these are just approaches that work for me. What about you? Are there other mind-tickling tactics that have sparked insights for you? Please let me know.