Some years back, I received an unusual letter in the mail. The envelope was wrinkled and the name scribbled in the upper left hand corner was one I didn't recognize: T. Hirshfield.
I opened it, and it turned out to be from a research physicist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory by the name of Tom Hirshfield. In his friendly, breezy way, Tom told me, among other things, that he enjoyed my writing, and that he also was a "student of how to solve problems effectively."
Tom went on to say, "Here are some rules of thumb that I've personally found useful in my work. Use them as you wish."
Tom Hirshfield's Rules of Thumb
1. If you hit every time, the target's too near -- or too big.
2. Never learn details before deciding on a first approach.
3. Never state a problem to yourself in the same terms as it was brought to you.
4. The second assault on the same problem should come from a totally different direction.
5. If you don't understand a problem, then explain it to an audience and listen to yourself.
6. Don't mind approaches that transform one problem into another, that's a new chance.
7. If it's surprising, it's useful.
8. Studying the inverse problem always helps.
9. Spend a proportion of your time analyzing your work methods.
10. If you don't ask "Why this?" often enough, someone else will ask, "Why you?"
As you can see, these simple and straight-forward "heuristics" show a keen observant mind at work. I've tried to incorporate them into how I approach problems, and feel that I've benefited from their application. Do they ring true for you? Do you have any of your own that you would add to the list?
(I never met Tom, but some months later, I found out from one of his colleagues that Tom was a relatively young man, had contracted a rare form of cancer, and had died shortly thereafter.)