Have you ever run into a complicated problem you couldn’t figure out? Then, after you thought about it a while, the answer appeared like magic. My colleague, John Puryear, has an old country saying that explains why this happens. It’s called “soaking time,” and there’s a lot of power behind these two words. Let’s look at where this saying came from and how you can use it to solve the challenging problems you face.


The History of Soaking Time

Every year, NCI (National Comfort Institute) has a company event called Trainer Week. NCI trainers from across the country get together and prepare for the next year’s training season. We often have a variety of events that focus on technical training techniques and curriculum.

During the last annual Trainer Week event, John introduced us to “soaking time” after we went through a deep-thinking and idea session. John declared, “I get the idea. It just needs some soaking time.” As we all laughed, we asked John to tell us more about the phrase.

John explained this was a Southern saying his dad used to describe letting an idea sit for a while and soak into your brain. The saying conjures up ideas of a prime cut of meat sitting in a marinade overnight. It soaks up all the juices that tenderize and flavor the cut for a new taste.


Two Examples of Soaking Time

Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, is probably the most famous example of someone who used “soaking time.” As the tale goes, a king had a crown made of gold but suspected there were other less valuable metals mixed in with it. The king asked Archimedes to determine if the crown was pure gold or if the craftsman who made the crown had deceived him.

The solution to this problem was out of reach to Archimedes for some time until he got into a bathtub. He noticed how the water flowed over as he slid into it. As Archimedes went to “soak” in the tub, he came up with an ingenious solution to determine if the crown was pure or not.

Pure gold would weigh more than the other metals the king suspected were in the crown. Therefore, a pure gold crown would displace water differently than one made of other metals. Archimedes could compare the measures of each crown in different tubs of water. The story says that when he discovered the solution to his problem, he jumped from the tub and ran into the streets naked, yelling, “Eureka! I’ve found it!”

Another example of soaking time involves Willis Carrier. He had just graduated from college and was waiting in foggy conditions for a train. He had been working on solving a humidity problem at a printing company and decided to take a break and go on vacation. While awaiting the train, Carrier noticed mist surrounding the train tracks and how moisture condensed out onto the cooler surfaces.

From there, he came up with the idea to use established air properties to remove moisture from the air with a mechanical refrigeration system. This system would lower the relative humidity in the printing shop and prevent their papers from curling up. Soaking time provided Carrier a way to bring about the air conditioning industry and cured the printing company's paper problem.


The Principle Behind Soaking Time

The principle behind soaking time is incubation. It is responsible for some of the best ideas we produce in a time frame we never plan on. If you’ve ever found the solution to a problem in the shower, while exercising, or lying in bed, you know what I’m talking about.


This is the principle that Archimedes and Carrier used to solve their toughest challenges. Soaking time let their problems marinate until the solution appeared in their heads. We can consistently use the same principles if we understand how they work.


How Soaking Time Works

The first step for you to put soaking time to work is to recognize the problem you’re trying to solve and write it down. Put it where you will see the words all the time. It’s best to focus on one problem at a time; don’t believe the multitasking myth.

Since I take things overboard, I write any problem I’m working on in huge letters on a 6-foot by 4-foot dry erase board. I can’t miss it, and I see it all the time in my office. I also write the problem on a post-it-note and stick it on my computer monitor.

When you’re in the field, the dashboard or windshield of your van are great places. I know some guys who capture their problems in a note-taking app and screenshot it as a screen saver on their smartphones. The key is to put it in a place where you will constantly see it.

Next, gather the information you need to diagnose the problem. A Google search, a visit to your favorite HVAC group, or reading from your favorite service and installation manual usually yields significant results. I prefer to write my ideas down by hand but also take photos of anything I think will help and dump them into one location where they are easy to find.

Once you’ve gathered your information, it’s time to approach the problem from as many angles as you can. As you dig for answers, you make connections you never expected and may see additional ways to solve your problems. How many times have you discovered the solution to a service call just by writing down all the measurements?

Finally, if the answer still hasn’t come, walk away from the problem. You’ve exhausted all your resources to solve it at this point. Now is the time to let your brain work on the problem in the background as you move to other things or relax.

In time, you will have your Eureka! moment. It may happen within a few minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months, but you will eventually find the answer. It depends on how complicated the problem is, how much effort you give, and usually happens when you least expect it.

Once the solution appears, capture it on paper, and work to find the flaws in your solution. This is the vetting process and it can get frustrating if you don’t allow it to work its course. Sometimes I thought I had an answer or idea, but this last phase led me to an even better idea.


Why Not Call Someone?

You might wonder why wouldn’t I just pick up my phone and call or text someone? Wouldn’t it be easier to ask for the answer? Yes, it would. However, there are times when you may cheat yourself of the chance to learn and become self-sufficient. Many in our industry are too quick to call their service managers with the same question again and again. Don’t be that guy.


Don’t Rush Your Soaking Time

If you impatiently look for the answer, it probably won’t show up at this point. The answers have an odd way of hiding if you look for them. You need patience. You can’t rush a marinade, and you can’t rush soaking time.

Let the problem work out in the background of your mind. It’s the part that controls breathing, heart rate, and all the other things we do without consciously being aware of them. Once your mind hits the saturation point, you’ll have your breakthrough — just like Archimedes and Willis Carrier.