Puzzle Me This

Recently I began doing the daily New York Times crossword. I’m a Johnny-come-lately to the whole puzzle thing, but it has been a fun, albeit frustrating, new addition to my daily routine.

As you may know, the puzzles become progressively more difficult throughout the week, culminating in the ultimate challenge on Sunday. I’ve consistently been able to complete Monday’s puzzle without too much difficulty. I can complete Tuesday’s only with a few trips to Google. And after that, I’m pretty much happy to complete 15-20 items.

What I’ve come to realize and appreciate though are the life’s lessons that come from tackling the crossword:

It’s easier to get things done earlier in the week. Be they personal or professional, most tasks are better attempted early in the week. Your energy tends to be higher. Your attention is a bit more focused. And it allows you to start off with some momentum that mioght help carry you through the week.

Fill in everything you know before you start struggling with too many other clues. Silly as it may sound, I’m prone to filling in the final s for any answers that I know are going to be plural. The more blank squares I fill in, the greater my sense of accomplishment and the more likely I can start to fill in some of the gaps.

If you have a hunch of what an answer is, write it down even if you don’t fill in the squares of the puzzle. I’m often surprised that something I initially want to reject as being right later turns out to be correct. All it takes is filling in another word whose letters confirm that my instincts for the other question were spot on. Too often we self-censor ourselves away from what ultimately is the appropriate choice. By at least capturing our thinking, we increase the odds it will be available for us at a later time.

Thinking literally often gets in the way of discovery. Clues often require metaphorical responses, phrases instead of single words, or other variations on what you might initially try to identify. Too much focus on things in black and white prevents you from seeing the answer comes in shades of gray.

Puzzles often include items from previous editions. There’s one river in Germany that found its way into several puzzles I attempted last month. Being able to retain recent knowledge and apply it to new settings often makes forward progress occur more quickly.

Go for the three- and four-letter words. They aren’t always the easiest, but frequently you can uncrack them more easily than some of the longer words. It reminds me of the importance of cranking out the smaller items on your to do list and breaking the more daunting tasks down into manageable chunks.

Check your work against the final answers. I have a good friend who does what he can on a puzzle and than tosses it out, never looking to see the answers to what he couldn’t complete. While that makes sense on one level, it eliminates the potential for any meaningful learning.

When you’re just staring at the page, set it aside, do something else, and return to the puzzle later. I am regularly amazed how a clue that seemed meaningless to me in the morning is the obvious key to a whole slew of answers when I pick the puzzle up again later in the day.

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