How to achieve stuff. (It's just like doing a puzzle.)

We go to the same holiday house every year. It's a great spot. The couch is comfy, the view is perfect, and... tan tan tara!... it has a Games Cupboard.

There are many games in the cupboard. The most popular ones with the kids are Trouble and UNO, but the ping pong bats get a pretty good workout too. However, unlike the rest of my family, I'm not overly fond of table tennis (possibly because I seem to have zero hand-eye coordination when it comes to ball sports, and also because I could care less whether I get points or not).

What I like to do is a good puzzle.

When we arrive at the house, I get out a puzzle, set up a little table, and see the picture come together over the days we are there. I find it relaxing, and, even better than that, enjoyable to achieve something tangible at the end of the task. Putting in that last piece... mmm. What a feeling.

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A few years ago, I pulled this puzzle out of the cupboard. We had two and a half days at the holiday house, and I was keen to do something. Plus, this was a new puzzle - I'd never done it before, and that made me excited.

Unfortunately, the puzzle beat me. 

With only a few days, I just couldn't finish putting the pieces together. With all the block colours and tiny differences in shading in the huge sky expanse, that puppy was hard. I put it back reluctantly and promised myself that one day I would get it.

On our latest trip, we had six days at the house.

Now's the time, I thought to myself. Those elephants are mine. So I pulled out the box, set up the table, and faced the task.

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Of course, the puzzle was still as hard as it had been the first time. It still took time, but I had time. And as I muscled on, working through the dismay of turning over yet another BROWN piece, I realised that jigsaw puzzles have life lessons to teach us all.

Here, for your edification, is my hard-earned, piece-by-piece wisdom I gained from a nearly impossible jigsaw puzzle.

1. No one else wants to do it like you do.

The other people in the room are really happy playing table tennis. This is your thing, and yours alone. If you want the puzzle to be done you are the one who is going to have to do the work. They might come over to have a look. They might even offer to help. (That conversation goes like a bit like this: Them - "Can I help?" You - "Sure." Them - picking up a piece and looking idly at it. "Okay. This is hard. <pause> Hey, does anyone want to play table tennis?") THEY ARE NOT COMMITTED TO THE PUZZLE LIKE YOU ARE COMMITTED TO THE PUZZLE. They do not love the puzzle. Nor should they be expected to. It's down to you. You've got to do this baby on your own.

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2. Preparation is key

See that box of pieces? There are 1000 of those little darlings in there. I turned over and sorted every single one before I started to put anything together. For me, puzzle making follows the same process every time. Things have an order, and that order goes like this:

  • find edge pieces and create the puzzle border.
  • sort pieces into rough groupings - 'like' goes with like.
  • work on notable elements first. (ie, sky or ocean is last).

My notable, easiest elements were the white line, the moon, and the line of dark grass meeting light horizon. From there I moved on to fill in the elephants. After that, it was all about those crazy dark trees and that brown sky.

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3. If the task seems impossible, break it down further

I estimate that at least 300 brown and black pieces went into that sky. Now that's not an easy thing to figure out, so I sorted the pieces into very subtle colour differences first. Within the colour differences, I sorted them into different types of pieces. That way, if I knew I was looking for a piece with three tabs and one blank (and yes, I had to go and google exactly what the little dimples and divets are called in a puzzle piece when I wrote this post) I could check my little stash of three-tabbed pieces, one by one and (hopefully) find the right piece.

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4. Look really closely at what's needed

When I got to the end stages of the puzzle, the colours of the pieces were all so similar that I couldn't organise based on shades of brown any more. Instead, I began to look at the fine details of the pieces. Some of them had big tabs and tiny blanks, or tiny tabs and big blanks. Some of them were angled in particular ways while others were straight. I looked over the places I needed to fill, found any really unusual features and then went looking for the specifically-shaped piece that would fill it.

5. Sometimes the fit is immediate. Other times, trial and error is your friend

I love those moments when you walk over to a puzzle, look at a place and somehow by magic select the exact piece to match it out of the swarm of pieces milling around beneath your hand. When it happens, I feel like the coolest puzzle-maker ever, with super talents and amazing matching skills. But it doesn't happen all the time. And when it doesn't, I have to remind myself that there are other ways to do this - trial and error being one of them. Honestly, I must have tried each piece in the photo in ten or twenty different places before I found the right place for it. It's a cliche, but 'if at first you don't succeed, try again.' Actually, try a bunch of times, with a slightly different piece each time. And don't stop trying until you find that match. Just because it didn't work magically the first time doesn't mean it isn't going to happen.

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6. If it really seems impossible, try looking at it from a different angle.

Turn the puzzle around. Move yourself so you're looking at it from the side. Do anything you can to give yourself a different perspective. Your eyes become fresher, and your brain has new possibilities.

7. Maybe you just need a rest.

When your head is buzzing, your neck is sore, your eyes are watering, and your brain is seeing BROWN wherever you turn, it's probs time for a little break, right? (Well, it helps me.) You can't do puzzles ALL the time. Sometimes you gotta go for a walk or look at the view. (Real skies are blue... nice.) When you're ready, you'll come back to that puzzle, and you'll be better for it.

8. When you're rested, keep going.

Remember: you don't want to be beaten twice by the same puzzle, do you? You've got something to prove. Also, you're awesome. And you can do this. Take your break, and head back to the puzzle. After all, you started it, so finish it. You'll feel amazing when you do.

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I may not do this puzzle again for a few years (or maybe NEVER ... it's tricky.) But I'll remember for a long time my huge sense of achievement in putting in that last piece, and what the process taught me.

Here's the takeaway.

Most of the things we set out to do in life are big, often difficult tasks, with multiple pieces to fit together and lots of things to keep track of. This applies equally to writing a book, raising a child (or several), getting and keeping a job, making a living, learning the cello, becoming more environmentally conscious and helpful, keeping the house clean, or doing rehab for a broken limb -- whatever it is we are doing.

Often, we're operating blind too: we can't see the whole picture until much later. We just have to work on what we've got at the time.

But remembering these things -- organisation, preparation, breaking it down, looking closely at what's needed, rest and perseverence -- will always help. Happy puzzling!