Like many of my clients, I am always looking for ways to speed things up – to produce more results with the same or even fewer resources. We probably agree on this. The key is certainly not about working harder; it may not even be about working smarter. But there are definitely ideas which work, and those ideas need to be uncovered. Often you can find them through analytical thinking. In my last article I discussed this: a process of asking deliberate questions, and in a disciplined, even rigorous way, coming up with answers. Asking and answering, that’s the analytical thinking process. Do it enough and you will likely come up with something useful.
But there is a whole other process, a “something” that goes on in the mind. Many people call it intuition. Others call it “gut feel,” or “tapping the universal spirit.” In contrast to rational, linear left-brain thinking, it is sometimes called “right-brain” thinking, synthetic, or holistic thinking. I’m going to call it unconscious thinking. What I mean by this cumbersome phrase is that this kind of ideation is based on removing the linear, rational, questioning, conscious thinker from the equation, and tapping into the results when they come.
How do you do that? Everybody has their favorite way. Several people, responding to my last article’s caveat that I was not referring to the thinking that goes on in the shower, wrote that their best ideas occur in the shower. For others, unconscious thinking occurs while driving their car. Or working out in the gym, riding a bike, or jogging. Gardening seems to be a hot spot for hot ideas. And sybarites I know report getting great ideas while being massaged and sipping wine in the hot tub.
Some people put themselves in a trance state via meditation or actively listening to music. Others go into a trance watching TV. I get great ideas when I’m at the movies. (Curiously, it doesn’t work while watching a movie on videotape — I think the level of concentration is too low — which may be a key to the way these processes work. For the car people, it only works while driving — not as a passenger. The logic behind this is similar.)
What is this spontaneous generation of unconscious ideas? I must confess that, really, I have no idea. But I do know how to make it happen. Spontaneously. The key is to loosen the grip of consciousness on the mind, and get the logical, linear, Q&A thinking process out of the way.
Spontaneous generation comes in two basic flavors –fortuitous and deliberate, both of them “unconscious”. An example of the fortuitous kind is what happens when you are driving your car, and an incredibly useful thought just “comes” to you. If you are not prepared, you are likely to lose it as quickly as it came. On the other hand, if you keep a voice recorder or notepad handy, you can capture this potential gem. Plus, being prepared to capture these “fortuitous” intuitive pearls, seems to be a very important part of having them more often.
An example of the deliberate version is when, upon retiring for the evening, you tell yourself (with feeling and conviction) you want to dream the solution to a particular problem. If you get lucky (back to fortuitous), you will. If you do this repeatedly — program yourself with a problem — you will start to dream solutions regularly.
Analytical types may scoff at this “telling yourself” bit. But recent research in cognitive science indicates a possible model for the mind as a series of unconnected agents, each with its own limited function set. Some of these agents may be linked by well-worn pathways. Others, however, have never communicated, and as yet have no way to do so. “Telling yourself” what you want to think about has the effect of sending a broadcast signal throughout the agent population, which may enlist them in your unconscious thinking process.
Whether by happenstance or intention, the available techniques, if you can call taking a shower a technique, are interchangeable. The only difference is whether you set out to generate a specific idea or whether random ideas comes unbidden.
Two habits will make unconscious thinking work more effectively for you. First, prepare your environment to capture ideas as they come. I put 3×5 note cards and pens everywhere — in my car, my night-table, the medicine cabinet, next to my favorite reading chair, my suit pockets, gym bag, even my under-the-seat bike storage pocket — just about everywhere I am, I can find a note card. Plus, I carry a voice recorder in my briefcase. The new one has a digital interface to my computer and transcribes notes automatically.
The second habit is to deliberately plant seeds of ideas in my unconscious mind. I regularly “re-mind” myself of the areas where I could use a creative flash. For instance, if I am working on a book chapter or an article, or if I need a new solution for a client’s business problem, I put that into my mental hopper and let it sit. Often ideas come to me, and if I am prepared to capture them — voila!
So — what are some ways to stimulate unconscious thinking?
We’ve mentioned a number already. One way to stimulate unconscious thinking is to engage in physical exercise. Jogging, swimming, biking, hiking, weight-lifting — all of these activities are great for idea generation. The key is they are all sort of mindless – not requiring much detailed thought. This may seem paradoxical — if you are trying to shut down your conscious mind, wouldn’t you want to distract it with a conscious thought process? No — it seems you want to have the opposite effect– you want to lull the conscious questioning thinker to sleep, and simple repetitive physical work seems to do that. Likewise, playing a rhythm instrument like drums or bass, or any sort of rhythmic chanting or dancing, will produce a similar result.
These activities, along with morning showers, afternoon massages, and evening hot tubs, may be considered strange in the corporate setting (except in California.) Here are some more corporately flavored, “structured” ways to generate unconscious thinking.
Mind mapping is an excellent technique for tapping the unconscious. Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind mapping, has a book called The Mind Map Book which details this technique. Mind mapping seems to unlock certain expressive mechanisms not available by writing. Drawing representations of your problems and possible solutions, however crudely, also works well. For truly graphically challenged, try collages made from cutout images. Sometimes just flipping though magazines will stimulate ideas. Get a big stack of publications — ones with good pictures — and start flipping.
There are activities which you can do in groups. You can play word association games. The game will usually have a context — the idea you’d like to explore. Start with a list of words which relate to your central idea, and free associate. Speed matters in this process, so record these games on audio tape. Another version is to use one of those magnetic poetry kits. Give people the kits and let them go to work. Also, you can mind-map in groups. Or gather a bunch of great images on a projector and let your group play off them.
I mentioned this in my last article: you can use structured information sources in an unstructured way. Use the Oxford English Dictionary (really any dictionary will do, the OED just seems better.) Pick words at random and establish connections with your central ideas. Or use a Tarot deck, or the Taoist I-Ching. You used to be able to do this with fortune cookies but the message quality has gone downhill. Pick a passage from your favorite inspirational literature such as the Bible or Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and invent a connection to your central idea — see what new things come up.
Try attending a seminar when you need new ideas. The seminar need not even be on the subject of concern. Just being in the seminar room, removed from your controlled environment, can cause your conscious mind to let go a little — just enough for spontaneous ideas to creep to the surface and make themselves available. And for those of you who don’t – read some books. On anything. Reading books always stimulates random thinking if you let it. Remember to keep note cards and pens handy.
Bring in outside speakers or consultants to spout off their ideas. (I know this might seem like a shameless plug.) Or cross-over people from departments who normally don’t work together. That always gets the juices flowing. Take these mixed-up groups and do any of the above.
Try game playing — simple things like checkers, go fish, touch-tackle football, Lego, plastic model building, even pickup sticks. Even home or office renovation work, which is simply another game to play. Try something community minded -a neighborhood cleanup program: lots of sweeping, lawn mowing, and trash pickup. All of these “games” distract the conscious mind. Do a session, gather everyone together, and ask what ideas came up. They will.
Do you get the idea? Do you have any other ideas?
Here then are your first two assignments. One: Make a mind map of all the ways you currently do this. Two: Focus your intention on developing some new unconscious processes. Walk around for a few days with this thought deep in the back of your mind. See what you come up with during the week.
The steps are:
Identify the area in which you want new ideas.
Create a diversion for your conscious mind. Lull it to sleep using any of the above methods, or one of your own.
Keep handy a way to record your ideas. This is critical. Use a pocket recorder or note cards. It’s a good idea to always carry one or the other.
Take your unconsciously generated ideas seriously. Pay attention to them: you may not use every idea, but at least evaluate it. Your unconscious mind likes that and you’ll get more.