Most productivity advice out there assumes you’re some lazy slob who can’t stop looking at your phone.
I beg to differ.
You’re really just someone with two jobs and maybe a kid, or a sick aunt. You have big dreams, but no time to work on them. Your unconscious mind can help, through a process called incubation.
Incubation is simply the act of putting your unconscious mind to work on a problem while the rest of you gets other things done.
In a few minutes, you’ll know how to do that.
Everyone used to think I was stupid.
My kindergarten teacher screamed at me every day. She would bend down and shout, “Why are you such an idiot?”
I failed all the time.
My school told my parents I was going to need special education. They could barely stand to look at me. For years, I was considered average or below intelligence. Over time, I studied hard to make As. Then one day when I was 14, they gave me one last IQ test.
I didn’t care. I skimmed the questions and made guesses.
A few weeks later, they plucked me right out of my classes and put me in a gifted program. Apparently I’d scored in the 99th percentile on the hardest test they had. My life changed forever.
My problem was that I thought thinking was hard.
The four stages of creativity.
The British psychologist Graham Wallis introduced incubation in his book, The Art of Thought in the 1920s. It’s the second stage of creativity, where you take a step back and let your mind wander:
The first stage could mean reading or brainstorming. You start writing or drawing or designing. You get a handle on your task and your problem. Incubation happens after you sign out for the day, when you’re doing chores or taking care of your kid.
Albert Einstein called incubation a kind of “combination play,” when your thoughts roam free. You start making connections between pieces of knowledge that your conscious mind never saw before. We often don’t realize it, but unconscious thought is the lost key to creativity.
It’s important to daydream.
Conscious vs. unconscious thought.
We could talk about the differences between conscious and unconscious thought all day, but getting to the point:
- Conscious thought is structured and linear.
- Unconscious thought is random and associative.
- Conscious thought is literal.
- Unconscious thought is figurative.
We’re oversimplifying here, but you get the idea. Your unconscious mind has a way of sifting through big piles of information in no time. Think of it as having your own personal supercomputer.
The best part is that it runs in the background.
You just have to get it going.
Your unconscious mind is incredibly powerful.
We love stories about geniuses.
The only difference between a genius and you is that a genius has learned how to tap their unconscious mind.
Some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history came via unconscious thought. For starters, the German chemist Friedrich August Kekule discovered the molecular structure of benzene through a dream he had about a snake devouring itself. The lesson is simple: If you want a breakthrough, sometimes you just need to go to sleep.
All kinds of studies over the years have showcased the incredible power of your unconscious mind. There’s too many to cover here, but any neuroscientist will tell you that our unconscious minds are capable of making complex decisions in milliseconds. What our conscious minds make impossible, our unconscious minds make easy.
Going to bed isn’t the only way to access your genius.
You’re always using your unconscious mind, even when you’re awake. It’s sending you signals all the time.
You just have to listen.
Reframe the distractions in your life.
You might think you don’t have time to be a genius.
But you do.
The constraints on your life often feel like shackles, but they can set your mind free if you let them.
You activate your unconscious when you disrupt your conscious. You can spend hours trying to trigger unconscious thought with apps and exercises, or you can just get up and go do something.
- Go to your boring normal job.
- Pick your kid up from daycare.
- Play in the sandbox.
- Wash some dishes.
- Start some laundry.
You probably have lots of opportunities for unconscious thought these days. Kid. Job. Spouse. You just don’t see it that way.
You see your life as a stream of unwelcome interruptions from the work you really want to be doing.
Imagine if you stopped fighting them.
When you’re interrupted, give your unconscious mind a specific task to work on, or a problem to solve. It’ll give you answers faster than you think.
The next time something snatches you away from your desk, give your unconscious mind a specific task to work on. For me, it’s coming up with ideas for my next post, or writing the first paragraph in my head. I’ve planned entire articles while driving to the store. That way, I’m not wasting precious time when I sit down to work.
You’ll struggle at first. Most people are sadly out of touch with their unconscious mind. Give it time.
Everyone from athletes to recording artists hone their unconscious mind through practice and repetition.
Do what you love.
Do it over and over and over.
That’s how your unconscious mind learns best. While you’re not practicing, ask your unconscious mind to do something. The longer you do that, the more responsive it becomes. Get comfortable with walking away from your work if you need to, and coming back to it later.
Genius lives in the gaps.
We think breakthroughs happen after long hours in the library or the office, but that’s not where the magic lives. Creative geniuses know it’s in the incubation stage. They don’t spend more time at their desk than they have to. The best ideas come when they’re doing the dishes.
Some people might be born with more innate talent or intelligence than others, but it’s a temporary advantage at best. Anyone can learn to hone their unconscious mind. They just need a chance.
Interruptions are part of life.
Use them to free up your unconscious mind.
Do that and you can start to achieve your creative potential, even if you have a ton of responsibilities, and not a lot of time.