Unsharp Mask As Mental Discipline

—Andy Hunt

Published in Andy's Blog

Are you familiar with the “unsharp mask” algorithm? It’s a graphic processing algorithm that’s available in tools such as The Gimp, Photoshop, the venerable xv, and so on. It sharpens images; it brings mushy details into clear focus and makes the whole image crisper and sharper. But it does the bit of visual magic in a counter-intuitive way: it starts by deliberately blurring the image.

That’s the “unsharp” part. By purposefully defocusing the image, you can then reassemble it—potentially discovering new boundaries and bringing out detail-that wasn’t visible previously.

I like to try to do something similar when faced with a sticky problem. After a while, continuing to beat one’s head against an issue stops being productive. You’re stuck. That’s when I “defocus”. My head’s already loaded up with all the facts, all the options. So I blur them. I leave my desk, and go out for a walk. Do something different—and away from the scene of the crime—for a few minutes. I think of anything but the problem at hand.

After a little break, when it’s gotten all blurred in my mind, I’ll try to “sharpen” it. That is, I try to reconstruct the facts, the options, the constraints, etc. It’s important to do this part away from your desk. By reassembling the image in your mind, you will find that maybe it goes back together a little differently than you thought. Perhaps a new insight will come to you; maybe even a solution to your problem.

This seems to work with all sort of issues, not just technical problems. In fact, one of the best uses I’ve found is to use the mental unsharp mask to help prioritize and determine which of several candidate problems is the next thing I should work on.

If any of us are going to be succesful at keeping our jobs over the next decade, we’re going to have to get better at many things—and especially at deciding what to get better at. I find that techniques such as this one help.

If you find this idea helpful, please let me know. If you don’t, and you think it’s hogwash, let me know that too :-)

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