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Seven ways WonderWord can help you be more creative and effective

A few months ago, I took up the daily WonderWord puzzle to help keep sharp my brain sharp in the face of the dreaded “mental-pause” syndrome that strikes so many of us in middle age.  In my daily ponderings of this word puzzle I have realized it has much to teach us about being creative and effective in both our personal and professional lives.

Are you familiar with WonderWord (WW)?  It’s a word search puzzle by Canadian David Ouellet that appears daily in 225 newspapers around the world. Players have to find each of a series of words (all pertaining to the day’s theme) that are listed within a grid of letters. Words appear horizontally, vertically, diagonally and backward. Players circle the individual letters of each word and the leftover letters spell the WonderWord.

Winning ways to be creative and effective gleaned from WonderWord

1) Prepare!

Start WonderWord by reading the directions, then scanning the list of words before starting to circle the letters of the hidden words.

Lesson: prepare before jumping into action. What background do you need to start a project? What information will provide context and do you – and your team members if applicable – clearly understand the project’s goals and any specific instructions? Pretty basic but a step that’s overlooked all too often.

2) Go after the low-hanging fruit

Start your WW search by scanning the grid to see which words jump out at you.

Lesson: Start your project by tackling the easy elements. There’s nothing wrong with this, whether it’s cleaning the house (I start with the bathrooms because they’re small), writing a book or starting a consultancy engagement, breaking the project down and starting with the easy tasks helps build momentum and enthusiasm. Organizational development literature extols the value of “early wins” with any new project in order to build engagement and support. That applies even with an audience of one – yourself!

3) Keep a line to your sub-conscious

Stay relaxed and allow your eyes and mind to flow freely across the grid and you’ll be amazed at how many words jump out at you – and how much easier this becomes with practice.

Lesson: Allow your sub-conscious to step up to the plate. Advertising guru David Ogilvy called this “keeping a telephone line open to the sub-conscious.” You can do this with larger projects by undertaking repetitive tasks that free your mind for creativity – Ogilvy liked gardening for this purpose. Walking by yourself is another great approach. So is giving your sub-conscious a direction to work on a challenge overnight (there’s a reason for the cliché “sleep on it”!). Pepperidge Farm was just another packaged bread until Ogilvy dreamt of a horse-drawn wagon delivering it, giving birth to a wildly successful ad campaign.

4) Follow directions, value experience

The WW directions emphasize that when we find a word we are to “CIRCLE THEIR LETTERS ONLY. DO NOT CIRCLE THE WORD. “ I remember as a teenager blithely assuming that this was messy and unnecessarily time consuming – and ignoring this instruction at my peril. The trouble is, the list words often have letters that overlap with each other and it’s difficult to spot these intersections when the entire word is circled.

Lesson: There’s a place for routines and there’s value in respecting experience. As creativity consultant Roger von Oech says in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head: “For most of our activities…routines are indispensable. Without them our lives would be in chaos and we wouldn’t get much accomplished.” In our WW example, creator David Ouellet and his team haven’t been doing this stuff for decades without learning a thing or two, why re-invent a wheel that’s still rolling along quite nicely?

5) What you see is what you get

Once you’ve found the obvious WonderWords, it’s time to get more analytical. Re-read the list of words and start looking for specific ones – for example by searching for those with less frequently used letters such as “x”. It’s amazing how quickly you will find a word simply because you’re focused on it.

Lesson: Clear goals and focus are a winning combo. As the saying goes – how will you know if you’ve arrived if you don’t know where you’re going?

6) Break those mental locks!

In WW, you have to read words printed horizontally, vertically, diagonally and backward – and sometimes backward vertically and backward diagonally.

Lesson: Break out of your mental routines – sometimes.  Von Oechs calls this breaking our mental locks. In WW the mental lock we have to break out of is reading of reading left to right horizontally. What mental locks can you break out of that are holding back your creativity and/or efficiency?

Does this lesson seem like a contradiction of the previous two – especially the lesson to follow directions and value routines? There’s a time for routine and a time for creativity. How to tell the right time? Ask yourself: is this situation/method/routine still working? Can it be done better? Have the circumstances that gave rise to the routine changed? And what is the risk of trying something new? The answers to these questions will tell you when it’s time for a fresh perspective that breaks your mental lock.

7) Leverage!

WonderWords often overlap. Sometimes each letter of a word but one has been circled by the time you find it.

Lesson: Leverage your activities!  Are you getting maximum impact for your efforts? For example, with a blog post like this, you could post it on your website, link to it from your social media sites such as Twitter, ask the people named in the post if they’d like to link to it from their sites, pitch it as an article for another publication, use it as the topic for your speech at Toastmasters (or your interview with David Letterman!) You get the idea…

A final word

A short while after I started doing WonderWord puzzles regularly, new research was published that said such mental exercises are not particularly helpful for the brain (physical exercise is the only thing the researchers found improved mental acuity).

The fact remains that WW is fun to do and if you look carefully, you’ll find lots of life lessons hidden within those words. I’ve listed a few, what are the ones you’ve spotted?

This article first appeared in my blog www.slateblog.ca. I’m re-printing it here because I think the message applies to MAW’s in general!

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