The classic way students are taught to approach tests in math and science is to tackle the easiest problems first. This is based on the notion that that by the time you’ve finished the relatively simple problems, you’ll be confident in handling the more difficult.

This approach works for some people, mostly because anything works for some people. Unfortunately, however, for most people it’s counterproductive. Tough problems often need lots of time, meaning you’d want to start on them first thing on a test. Difficult problems also scream for the creative powers of the diffuse mode. But to access the diffuse mode, you need to not be focusing on what you want so badly to solve!

What to do? Easy problems first? Or hard?

The answer is to start with the hard problems—but quickly jump to the easy ones. Here’s what I mean.

When the test is handed out to you, first take a quick look to get a sense of what it involves. (You should do this in any case.) Keep your eye out for what appears to be the hardest problem.

Then when you start working problems, start first with what appears to be the hardest one. But steel yourself to pull away within the first minute or two if you get stuck or get a sense that you might not be on the right track.

This does something exceptionally helpful. “Starting hard” loads the first, most difficult problem in mind, and then switches attention away from it. Both these activities can help allow the diffuse mode to begin its work.

If your initial work on the first hard problem has unsettled you, turn next to an easy problem, and complete or do as much as you can. Then move next to another difficult-looking problem and try to make a bit of progress. Again, change to something easier as soon as you feel yourself getting bogged down or stuck.

When you return to the more difficult problems, you’ll often be pleased that the next step or steps in the problem will seem more obvious to you. You may not be able to get all the way to the end immediately, but at least you can get further before you switch to something else on which you can make progress.

In some sense, with this approach to test taking, you’re being like an efficient chef. While you’re waiting for a steak to fry, you can swiftly slice the tomato garnish, then turn to season the soup, and then stir the sizzling onions. The hard-start–jump-to-easy technique may make more efficient use of your brain by allowing different parts of the brain to work simultaneously on different thoughts.

Using the hard-start–jump-to-easy technique on tests guarantees you will have at least a little work done on every problem. It is also a valuable technique for helping you avoid Einstellung— getting stuck in the wrong approach—because you have a chance to look at the problems from differing perspectives at different times. All this is particularly important if your instructor gives you partial credit.

The only challenge with this approach is that you must have the self-discipline to pull yourself off a problem once you find yourself stuck for a minute or two. For most students, it’s easy. For others, it takes discipline and willpower. In any case, by now you are very aware that misplaced persistence can create unnecessary challenges with math and science.

This may be why test takers sometimes find that the solution pops to mind right as they walk out the door. When they gave up, their attention switched, allowing the diffuse mode the tiny bit of traction it needed to go to work and return the solution. Too late, of course.

Sometimes people are concerned that starting a problem and then pulling away from it might cause confusion in an examination. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for most people; after all, chefs learn to bring various facets of a dinner together. But if you still have worries about whether this strategy might work for you, try it first on homework problems.

Be aware of some occasions when hard-start–jump-to-easy might not be appropriate. If the instructor gives only a few points for a really difficult problem (some instructors like to do this), you may wish to concentrate your efforts elsewhere. Some computerized licensure examinations don’t allow for backtracking, so your best bet when facing a tough question is simply to take a deep breath or two from the belly (make sure to breathe out all the way, also) and do your best. And if you haven’t prepared well for the test, then all bets are off. Take what simple points you can.