How to Engage Your Subconscious Mind to Solve Your Toughest Problems
An old strategy used by the some of the smartest, creative people in history
Your brain operates on two different levels — your conscious and subconscious. Now, these aren’t two separate brains, or hidden doors somewhere in our heads. The two minds are the way we process information. They both have critical jobs and we can’t function without either working in concert with the other.
The conscious mind works on the simple, day-to-day tasks, while the subconscious does the heavy-lifting and deep-work.
Your conscious mind runs your direct life before you. This part of your brain can only focus on one task at a time. The conscious mind uses a small percentage of our brain power, around 10%, with the other 90% of the processing power dedicated to our subconscious.
Your conscious brain controls:
- Short term memory
- Logical thinking
- Critical thinking
Your subconscious (or unconscious) brain controls:
- Protective Reactions
- Long term memory
Your subconscious is tricky
You can’t access your subconscious as if you’re calling a friend or Googling how to bake cookies. This is the place of daydreams and aha moments. This is the work of jumping out of danger before your conscious mind recognized the bus coming.
Think of your subconscious as the back-office of your brain, dealing with all the deep tasks, while your conscious mind cooks dinner, navigates through traffic, chooses which Netflix show to watch, and holds a conversation. Ever notice all the green cars after you buy a green car, or you take out the trash and a great idea pops in your head from nowhere? This is your subconscious hard at work in the background.
We can’t do without conscious thought. That 10% of your thought power is a very important 10%. But if we’re looking for heavy solutions to creative problems, those issues are assigned to the back-office. Unlike your conscious mind, your subconscious handles many activities/thoughts/processes simultaneously. Your subconscious can process 500,000 times more information that your conscious mind!
So, why don’t we call-up our subconscious when we need it?
It’s not that easy — Mother Nature’s little trick. You can’t just set your subconscious to work on a problem. It’s real meta, I know, but by that very act of making a conscious decision to use your subconscious mind, you’re only using the conscious part of your brain — but you CAN help the process along and point your brain in the right direction.
As creatives, we need this subconscious powerhouse to help us thrive in our chosen vocations. Conscious solutions aren’t enough. We need these deep ideas to take us to the next level. If Einstein required this (he’s famous for his though experiments and hours of pondering), we do too.
How to prime your subconscious mind
You can’t force your subconscious to work on a project, but you can point it towards the solution. This is called priming. Priming happens when you focus your conscious brain on research and list-making dedicated to the big problem you want to solve.
- Hand-write charts, notes, lists, and diagrams dedicated to all the issues associated with the problem you want to solve.
- Read books, research papers, and notes all based on your problem.
- Watch lectures and attend courses.
- Make a pro-con list.
- Watch movies and television shows.
Activate as many of your five senses as possible. This is a trick we do as writers. The more of your senses we activate, the easier it is to remember a situation, and the bigger the emotional response. With our subconscious mind, we want to generate the biggest emotional response we can — another signal to our brains this is an important project and requires serious brain attention.
The more conscious information you stuff into the back-office of your subconscious forces your brain acknowledge the problem as a priority and adds that issue to to your subconscious queue.
There isn’t really a conveyor belt of ideas inside your mind, but this a simplified way of describing it. Think of your subconscious as juggling a bunch of balls simultaneously while your conscious holds just one ball until the next ball comes. When you subconscious delivers an idea, it plucks the ball from the juggled pile and delivers it to the conscious mind for immediate action.
How to access these gifts from your subconscious
- Plan for time to do nothing — Your subconscious will hoard its ideas while your conscious mind is busy working-away. If you fill all your time with busy-work, you won’t give your mind the needed rest required for the ideas to surface. Block-off thinking time in your calendar. If you’re a creative this is a MUST. You can’t grow if you don’t allow time for fresh ideas.
- Sit for ideas — In the famous book, Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill discusses a doctor who had a special room in his house the size of a closet. The room had a table, a lamp, and a pad of paper. The doctor sat in the dark as long as it took to come up with a solution to a problem. Once the idea popped in his head, he’d turn on the light and note what he found. Whether or not this is a true story (as much of this book has been debunked as fabrication by Hill), I’ve used this method myself and can attest it works well.
- Deposit capture devices everywhere — A capture device is anything you want to use to take notes. I use a digital recorder in my car, so I don’t have to look down to write. You can use your phone, a notebook, or scraps of paper. Agatha Christie, the famous mystery writer, kept little dime-store notebooks all over her house, so she’d never lose an idea, should it strike her. You’ll need a capture device in your pocket, in the car, in your bag, by the bed, and in the bathroom, at a minimum.
- Shower — We get a Dopamine release from showering. The warm water over our bodies stimulates our brains in a unique way and it’s a great time to come up with some of your best ideas. There are entire sections of the internet dedicated to shower thoughts. I use a special, waterproof notepad and pencil, suction-cupped to the wall of my shower for this purpose.
- Walk or do something physical, without directed purpose — Our brains do their best work in motion. Our bodies are built to think this way (which is another reason why sedentary office work is so toxic). Take a walk or exercise. Keep your capture device nearby. You can’t DECIDE to solve a problem, but with seeds planted, your subconscious may offer you intuitive solutions are you get your body moving. Your job is to ensure you don’t lose these ideas, noting them for later when it’s time for the conscious work.
- Drop your keys — This old trick was used by Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison to name a few. Grab a capture device and place it nearby. Rest in a chair, to the point you doze-off. This twilight phase of sleep is a powerful moment for your subconscious. As you fall asleep your hand will drop, your keys will hit the floor, and you wake-up. Note any thoughts you had in your capture device. Dali used keys. Edison used a fistful of ball bearings. Just make sure you do this over a hard floor. Keys on carpet won’t help you.
Whether you drop your keys on the floor, or take a hot shower, your subconscious is there waiting for you. Instead of packing your mind with worry or trivial problems, you now have the tools to aim your subconscious in the right direction.
The things we think about become our reality.
If you spend all your time worrying about your to-do list, whether the lawn needs watering, or if your customer will appreciate your hard work, you won’t give your subconscious the tools in needs to solve your best problems. Put that brain to work on the important issues and leave the little worries for someone else. You’ve got big goals ahead of you. It’s time to put that subconscious mind in action.