When facing an important decision, it’s a fairly common piece of advice to “sleep on it.” The operative idea is this: in many situations, you can’t quickly sort out the various factors and considerations by using only your conscious mind. However, if you give your subconscious mind time to work on the problem, it’s likely to help you produce a good choice of how best to move forward.
Scientists have been studying this phenomenon and have discovered something surprising: the same parts of your brain that light up with activity when you’re consciously thinking about a problem or making a decision – generally the prefrontal cortex – stay lit up after you’ve “stopped thinking about it” and you have – consciously at least – moved on to other things.
The conclusion is clear: only your conscious mind has actually “stopped thinking about the problem.” Your subconscious continues to chew away at the issue – like a dog with a bone – until it comes up with a useful answer and calls it to your conscious attention.
This understanding of the subconscious process gives rise to some valuable methods to help you, first, wade through difficult and complex matters and, second, recognize the best outcome – the one you ought to make your goal. These techniques happily provide some important benefits, as well.
While your subconscious mind is certainly aware of everything your conscious mind knows, experience indicates that you can “prime the pump” for better, faster subconscious processing by doing the following:
- Research the matter – learn all the facts you can about whatever issue you are considering.
- Itemize the aspects of the issue that are under your control as well as those that are not.
- Consider your options for taking action – including all the possible things you can do, and the most important things you cannot.
- Evaluate the likely outcome from each course of action that seems open to you. This is where you want to weigh the various pros and cons, both short-term and long-term.
Very often, at some point in this preparation process a “light bulb” goes on. You begin to feel comfortable with your understanding of the situation. In other words, you may not have become a total expert, but you feel you “know enough” to stop learning more about it.
This is when you intentionally “turn it over” to your subconscious process. Once you’ve primed the pump, it’s time to do something else. It doesn’t much matter whether you turn your attention to another project, or take the rest of the day off. The goal here is to stop thinking consciously about the matter you’ve been researching. Instead, you trust your subconscious to take charge during the next phase of the work.
Studies show that it doesn’t much matter whether you distract yourself with entertainment or you focus intensely on some other project or task that’s important. Whatever you may think you are doing, your subconscious will actually continue processing whatever you’ve been researching. While it’s doing this work, you will have little or no awareness of what’s going on beneath the flow of your conscious thoughts.
The evidence seems to show that your brain is using all the same resources you’d be using if you were consciously working the problem, but for now you are not actively handling the controls. What’s more, your subconscious mind is putting in long, hard hours, but it doesn’t seem to get tired or distracted. Your subconscious process seems to be fairly relentless, even though you feel like nothing is happening and no progress is being made.
But eventually, you will get “The Answer.”
The insightful “answer” from your subconscious processing pops into your conscious mind seemingly “from nowhere,” often by surprise. It may come to you while you’re in the shower, or jogging, or thinking about something else. Although this answer from the subconscious is in a sense the culmination of your preparation and incubation phases, you still have work to do:
Once your subconscious delivers “the answer,” it effectively turns the matter back over to your conscious attention. This leaves it up to you to evaluate how well “the answer” (which you should more accurately think of as “a suggestion”) fits with the practical world:
Step 1: In broad strokes, you must evaluate how much sense this insightful suggestion makes. Does it have the potential to get you where you want to go? Is it truly a creative stroke of genius, a sensible compromise among several possible solutions, or merely a foolish dream?
If the suggestion does not pass muster, or is not satisfactory in some way, you’ll want to kick the problem back to your subconscious for further processing. Just stop thinking about it, again, and your deeper-level brain-power will once more take up the challenge.
Step 2: Here is where you consider in detail whether or not your subconscious process overlooked anything important. Has it done the measurements and calculations correctly? Has it weighed the pros and cons fairly? Has it accurately accounted for all the relevant human and social factors?
There are many primarily conscious methods for answering difficult questions and solving complex problems. But the evidence shows that when you allow enough time for your whole brain – conscious and subconscious – to work on the matter, you’ll most likely chalk up considerably more productivity and success in both your work and your life.
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