If You’re Stuck On An Old Idea, Try Washing Your Hands To Move Forward

Getting stuck in a rut when it comes to accomplishing your goals or brainstorming ideas is frustrating. Sometimes, no matter how much you pace around the office or fidget with a specially designed toy, the brainwaves just aren’t zapping. But new research suggests an interesting idea—washing your hands.

No, this isn’t a hint, and no, we’re not kidding.

Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management discovered that the physical act of washing your hands can shift what they call “goal pursuit.” While you’re scrubbing your cuticles, prior goals become less crucial and future goals take on renewed focus and importance.

Researchers did four experiments to test this theory, each of which started by attuning participants to specific goals through word games or surveys (a process called priming). Then, the participants were asked to either evaluate the exercise or actually use a hand wipe to clean their hands. The results? Those who used the hand wipe to clean their hands were less likely to think of the previous goal, and also less likely to find it important. Additionally, it was easier to re-route their focus toward a new goal.

“For people who were primed with a health goal, for example, using the hand wipe reduced their subsequent tendency to behave in a healthy manner—they were more likely to choose a chocolate bar over a granola bar,” says Ping Dong, a Ph.D. student in marketing who worked on the research with Spike W. S. Lee, an assistant professor of marketing.

This research is relevant to short-term goals more than long-term ones, but that doesn’t mean you should run to the sink every time you feel stuck in a problem-solving situation. Study author Ping says people shouldn’t “significantly alter their personal hygiene routines” in order to achieve a new goal. But, the research suggests, there’s no harm in trying some good old-fashioned soap and water (or a hand wipe) when it comes to redirecting your thinking.