As knowledge workers, we are constantly solving problems. Are you solving a distribution problem, a sourcing problem, an inventory problem, a finance problem or a staffing problem? Are you tasked with coming up with a big idea, or a sales pitch, or simply writing that next sentence? Sometimes when we are in the weeds of a problem we get stuck. We can’t seem to break through and staring at the computer screen doesn’t help.
You’ve heard me discuss the dangers of autopilot thinking or allowing your unconscious mind to influence your decisions. While it is true that the unconscious mind is full of fallacies, biases and other blind spots, it is also extremely efficient at problem solving. The unconscious mind is much faster than the conscious mind and it has access to virtually all the information stored in your head. So, how do we activate this powerful operating system of thought.
In his book How We Learn, author Benedict Carey writes this about specific observations of problem solving: “crucial insights came after the person had abandoned the work and was deliberately not thinking about it.” In order for the breakthrough to occur, there must be an incubation period. This is when your unconscious mind takes over the analysis. The incubation of unconscious thought is why our breakthrough ideas often occur in the car, in the shower, while cooking, or while watching your kid’s soccer game.
Believe it or not, interruption (although annoying) can often trigger this percolation process enabling your unconscious mind to solve a problem.
The next time you’re stuck, walk away. Find a distraction. Do something completely unrelated to the problem at hand in order to put your unconscious mind to work. You’ll be surprised when, seemingly out of nowhere, that “aha!” moment hits.
Oh, and when someone disturbs your train of thought while you are trudging through a difficult problem… thank them. They probably just did you a favor.