How to solve problems: let your subconscious do the thinking

When I have an important (or tough) problem to solve, I often afford myself the luxury of shelving it for a few days, even if I think I can already see a solution. During this time, I don’t think about it and it does not weigh on my mind – I’m busy doing other things. Although I’m not consciously thinking about it, it percolates away in my subconscious, and a solution often announces itself when I least expect it.

If a few days pass without a magical solution bubbling up, I’ll start thinking about the problem again. Download SpeedFiler Now!However, I quite often realize that there’s a better way to define the problem – and this time it’s much easier to solve.

I am often amazed by the simplicity and elegance of the solutions I arrive at using this method. Each time this happens, I’m quite sure that I would not have been able to produce the solution deliberately using a linear, logical thought process.

The time that I’m most prone to receiving these insights is when I’m not working, and usually doing something physical rather than cerebral. My morning run or a long drive often offer up solutions to such problems.

This has highlighted for me the importance of not spending every waking moment on work. I admit that this is a constant battle, but the fact is that my creativity and the quality of my work suffers significantly unless I regularly engage in non-work and non-cerebral activities. The mind needs to rest, and I now understand the true meaning of “healthy body, healthy mind.” I imagine that I’m not unique in this respect, and I’m convinced that today’s typical overloaded employee who works a 60+ hour week could achieve more by working less.

When will companies start noticing that this overload is adversely affecting their bottom line?


29 responses to “How to solve problems: let your subconscious do the thinking

  1. I find that my brain is most productive when I am asleep.

  2. Yep, I totally agree. Some of my best ideas and solutions tend to pop up in that hazy twilight period between wakefulness and sleep (usually in the mornings, after the “first” alarm has gone off).

    I think there’s much to be said for letting our subconcious mind gnaw away at a problem for awhile.

  3. Itzy,
    Great post! I agree that companies need to take notice of this problem, but workers are also somewhat guilty because they crave the novelty of new emails, etc.

    You might be interested in this article about brainstorming. Research shows that group brainstorming is not nearly as effective as individual brainstorming, which surprised me.

    At the end of the article, there’s also an explanation of why you get good ideas in the shower. It has to do with lack of distraction and feeling uninhibited by the opinions of others. Interesting stuff.

  4. I notice that programming problems seem to get solved magically after a good night’s sleep. It helps if I was thinking about the problem right before I went to bed.

    Also, I recommend biking to and from work as a way to get a free workout, freedom for the mind to generate insights, and a break on gasoline prices all at the same time.

  5. Here’s a related trick: If you have a lot of things to do the next day write down your to-do list the night before rather than the next morning. You will find that you can accompish your tasks more quickly because your brain prepares for the work while you sleep.

  6. Absolutely, all the best decisions are serendipitous; the worst ones in decision-making sessions.

  7. I agree with you that taking ones mind off the problem will help solve the very issue of concern. Although, the scenario is quite different, I recall once, awaking in the night, and being quite sure I was short changed at the bank during the day. Checked my money, went back to the bank, and it was confirmed. Without my even considering it, my mind worked on the problem. Amazing critters–our minds. Enjoyed your post.



  8. In solving problems that involve creativity and insight, I often find brute forcing a solution, given that it is possible, by linearly connecting one step to another (whether or not the steps are produced in a linear order is irrelevant) is inelegant or inefficient. When I allow the matter to quietly settle in my mind as I sleep, I usually wake up the next morning with the answer staring at me in the eyes.

    Concentrating on a problem for a prolonged period of time, to me, is often a waste of time. Because when your mind is focused, my focus is restricted to a narrow band of thoughts directly relating to the problem (hence “focused”, because everything else is blurred out), and I might not be able to come up with an effective solution at all. I must have to agree that it is a constant battle, between a sense of duty of getting the work done quickly (concentrating on the task and keep working on it), and the idealistic desire of wanting it to be done in quality (set it aside for a while). However, as you have quite rightly pointed out, this overloading can be extremely counter-productive.

    Sometimes to make two steps forward is to take a step back.

  9. I completely agree. The hardest part, however, is trying not to think about something. I find that during my run or when I am walking, it gives me a chance to think about stuff. So my mind naturally does not rest. However, I agree, decisions come much easier if you give your brain an opportunity to do its own thing without you trying to give it direction. If only I could do it more often.

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  11. More power to your elbow, Itzy, for throwing light on a critical, indispensable and inexplicably little used means of ‘problem solving’. The subconscious mind in fact, ‘harbours’ the largest store of your problem solving skills – in fact, it has access to ‘resources’, ‘methods’ and ‘solutions’ YOU DONT EVEN KNOW YOU POSSESS. One way in which you can dramatically increase your usage of your subconscious mind is to state to your subconscious mind the issue you want resolved, and by when you want it resolved (for eg: by 900 a.m. tomorrow morning). Your success rate is magnified when you respect the possibility that this will happen just so. (Dare I use the word faith?) Believe that your subconscious mind is able to do it, know that its keen to do it, remember that this is its right function, and …. you begin to realise a little bit the full implication of : Ask and you shall recieve, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.

  12. Sandhya Seshadri

    I work in advertising, and while most copywriters and art directors use their sunconscious minds to arrive at ideas, I am still amazed that many are not even aware that they are doing it. I wonder sometimes how much more fertile their imaginations would be, and how much of the stress they would save themselves, if they stopped to realise that this was the tool they were using all this time, and made a little conscious use of it.

  13. “When will companies start noticing that this overload is adversely affecting their bottom line?”

    Never because they can “right-size” at any time to make corrections to the bottom line.

  14. I agree, but I think my mind needs the *space* to handle “background processing” like this. For me, this is achieved by having a system to manage my information and work flows.

  15. I very much agree with you..
    When trying to solve an issue,conscious brain tries to solve it with all its ability..But it is the subconscious mind that comes for the rescue most of the time to find the best solution.The subconscious mind is so good to look at the things laterally!

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  17. In 1974 I was hypnotised by one of my friends, quickly I manged to solve mathematical problem but I failed to solve it after out of trance.
    I read in old books that the great scientists along the history use to use selfhypnosis to find theories and solutions to technical problems. I ‘ve hypnotised one guide, sent him to my house, he discribed my houe to me..
    please add, or comment

  18. Rather than ‘unconscious’, what if information is stored in your physical body and the configuration of it? Change your body position and the information you access and the way you think also changes. I’ve written my webiste about this idea and how to make a decision and why breaks at work are important. Cheers!

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  20. Hey, I shared the similar thought. A lot of time, the solution to my problems popped up when I was not thinking of it in the first place. It is amazing how the subconcious mind works.

  21. The mystery of complete rest in sleep where the subconscious mind is in total operative mood has yet to be discovered in its totality. I believe that every step man take in discovering the state of mind, we are one step closer to realise our potential in this universe.

  22. yes def. subconcious mind work and gives answer. no doubt about it. But your belief inyour sub-conciious mind mind is more important

  23. christophercdean

    Definitely, this method works. The subconscious mind really is a marvel at work.

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  25. im 17 and i just started really thinking about just how much potential we have…just thinking a little more about it, without even reading anything about it…i discovered that the subconscious holds the key to many of are answers…but where i really got blown away is to the fact that you can come up with answers to things you dont even consciously think about!…i believe that we have alot of potential and we need to learn how to use it, too often i find myself looking for answers that are right in front of me!…i believe that the strongest tool you have is the WAY you think, that mentality is the most important, because its nice to know about your subconscious but knowing isint everything… we need to RESPECT how advanced our brain and not just our conscious but also our subconscious is, thats why you can try to use it to its REAL potential! I feel that i understand this from a far and simple view, as much as it is good to study others material and understand more of others thoughts (dont get me wrong you can learn alot from people) i believe that you cant forget that its how you take that information at heart, the way you think of it and remember it, so when someone tells you something the best way to learn it is to not ignore any possibilities, so think of HOW they came up with it! I believe that thats how you BELIEVE in it, and thats when you set yourself the right mentalaty…from the little i know of my subconscious i want to learn how to obtain my subconscious thoughts…because i know and i believe that it holds answers to what you truly WANT in life, the best thing about your subconscious thoughts, is that you obtain an answer to something you may of never really consiously thought of, and thats HOW YOU KNOW that thats where you got that answer, and the best part is for some reason it seems like its the best answer you could ever come up with! AND IM SURE THAT IT IS!!!

  26. need more just starting out research the subconsious mind so much material out hear

  27. I definitely agree with the need to let the subconscious mind do its work. This quote from Albert Einstein does a great job in crystallizing the issue: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

    The subconscious plays an important role in intuitive decision making as well.

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