Have you seen the movie Minority Report? Then you must remember Tom Cruise memorably manipulating floating digital images around wall-sized computer screens by waving his hands. It seemed so effortless. What a nice way to solve problems!
Unfortunately, Minority Report’s technology has not yet reached our day-to-day workspace. But we can at least inspire ourselves from the concept.
Here’s how the Minority Report principle can save you headaches when solving problems.
Manipulating objects inside our mind is not effective
Did you know there’s a limit on how many objects you can manipulate in your mind? Apparently, the maximum number of objects is 4. This has been proven in a study by Nelson Cowan in 2001.
Yes, this limit is low. Sometimes, you have the impression you can hold more objects. But the truth is the brain manipulates packs of objects called chunks. For example, when you think about words, you don’t think about individual letters but groups of letters instead.
So, yes, your brain is very limited in terms of short-term memory. And this has dire consequences when solving complex problems.
When you have too many objects to process in your mind, you become overwhelmed. That’s what academics call cognitive overload. We often experience this in class for example, when a teacher gives us too much information or too many tasks at a time.
And it gets even worse if you are stressed or intimidated by a complicated problem. You’ve probably already experienced mind blanking at one time or another. I bet you can still feel this dreaded feeling of losing your mental abilities.
Fortunately, there’s a simple way to calm you down.
Manipulating objects outside your brain
The trick is to manipulate objects outside your mind, just like Tom Cruise manipulated content floating into the air like a director. When you have everything under your eyes, your mind is relieved and it’s much easier to break down your problem and see the relationships between different parts of it.
In fact, we often use this principle already. Think about architectural models or operational maps used by the army. Think about what you do when explaining complicated concepts to your coworkers: you would draw diagrams on whiteboards, or make a quick doodle on a piece of paper.
It’s great to use visual supports when explaining something to someone. However, the practice can also be used while working alone. For example, when faced with a complex problem, one of my reflexes is to take several sheets of paper in front of me and break things down. I would add color, circle things, create relationship with arrows. This helps tremendously.
I also like to stick countless post-its on my walls like that:
This is probably the closest analog alternative to the gesture interface from Minority Report since you can easily manipulate them.
Now what about our digital environment?
A screenshot is worth a thousand words
Although you likely don’t have Minority Report’s equipment at home yet, right now you can manipulate windows and perform drag-and-drop operations in your computer. Let’s recognize this is a considerable progress compared to the command line of the 80s. But you can go further than this.
In my opinion, one of the best ways to emulate Minority Report’s effortless manipulation of objects is to take screenshots. Right now, I’m using a free screenshot utility called Greenshot that makes it easy to create screenshots and annotate them.
Often I would create 3 or 4 screenshots at a time, annotate or draw on them and move them in front of me while facing difficult problems. This certainly reduces the pain of my problem-solving. And I would recommend you try this if you often agonize over tough problems.
Also it might be worth to try one of the smart capturing tools such as CleanShot (Mac only, paid option). I’ll leave you experiment with this.
As you can see, there are many ways to apply the Minority Report principle in your daily life. Depending on the situation, you might prioritize one approach or the other.
I hope it helps solve those dreaded complex problems you face each day!