Has this ever happened to you? You’re walking down the street, completely relaxed, and you are not thinking about any particular thing. Then all of a sudden the solution to a problem you’ve been working on for weeks pops into your head out of the blue. You wonder why you didn’t think of it before.
You’ve experienced your subconscious mind at work. Your subconscious mind will continue to work on a problem long after you leave it. This is known as incubating the problem. Many idea people report that their best ideas come when they are not working or even thinking about their problem. It was well known that when Thomas Edison was stonewalled by a problem, he would lie down and take a nap and allow his subconscious mind to work on it.
Incubation usually involves setting a problem aside for a few hours, days, or weeks and moving on to other projects. This allows the subconscious to continue to work on the original challenge. The more interested you are in solving the challenge, the more likely your subconscious will generate ideas. The creative act owes little to logic or reason. In their accounts of the circumstances under which big ideas occurred to them, scientists have often mentioned that the inspiration had no relation to the work they happened to be doing. Sometimes it came while they were traveling, shaving, or thinking about other matters. The creative process cannot be summoned at will or even cajoled by sacrificial offering. Indeed, it seems to occur most readily when the mind is relaxed and the imagination roaming freely.
As a simple experiment, write the alphabet vertically on a piece of paper. Now write a sentence vertically next to the alphabet, stopping with whatever letter parallels Z. Now, you have a row of initials. Next, think of as many famous people as you can (real or fictional) for each set of initials in 10 minutes. If you couldn’t come up with some names but then suddenly thought of them while you were working on other initials, you experienced your subconscious mind at work.
Highly-acclaimed British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell was quoted in The Conquest of Happiness as having said: “I have found, for example, that, if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is think about it with very great intensity — the greatest intensity of which I am capable — for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months, I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I had discovered this technique, I used to spend time in the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the faster for this worry, and the worrying time was intervening months were wasted.”
You can benefit from Bertrand Russell’s experience by following his advice and working on the problem with great intensity and then ordering your subconscious mind to solve it. An easy way to communicate with your subconscious mind and give it your orders is to write it a letter.
The guidelines are:
1. Work on a problem until you have mulled over all the relevant pieces of information. Talk with others about the problem, ask questions, and do as much research as you can until you are satisfied that you have pushed your conscious mind to its limit.
2. Write a letter to your subconscious mind about the problem. The letter should read just like a letter you would send to a real person. You may even want to give a name to your subconscious. I call my subconscious “Leo,” after Leonardo da Vinci.
Make the letter as detailed and specific as possible. Describe the problem definition, the attributes, what steps you have taken, the problems, the gaps, what is needed, what you want, what the obstacles are, and so on. Just writing the letter will help better define a problem, clarify issues, point out where more information is needed, and prepare your subconscious to work on a solution. Have faith that your subconscious is all-knowing and can solve any problem that is properly stated.
3. Instruct your subconscious to find the solution. Write, “Your mission is to find the solution to the problem. I would like the solution within three days.”
4. Seal the letter and put it away. I sometimes even mail it to myself as part of the ritual.
5. Let go of the problem. Don’t work on it. Forget it. Do something else. This is the incubation stage when much of what goes on occurs outside your focused awareness, in your subconscious.
When you think about a subject, some of these thoughts become loose and put into motion and begin to move around in your subconscious mind. The more work you put into thinking about a problem, the more thoughts and bits of information you set into random motion. Your subconscious mind never rests. When you quit thinking about the subject and decide to forget it, your subconscious mind doesn’t quit working. Your thoughts keep colliding, combining, recombining and making associations.
There’s a thing in mathematics called, the “factorial”, which calculates how many ways you can combine things. If you have three objects, then there are one times two times three, which leaves six combinations. Mathematicians calculate that ten bits of information can combine and recombine in three million different ways in your mind. So you can imagine the cloud of thoughts combining and making associations when you incubate problems.
6. Open the letter in three days. If the problem still has not been solved, then write on the bottom of the letter, “Let me know the minute you solve this” and put it away again. Sooner or later, when you are most relaxed and removed from the problem, the answer will magically pop into your mind.
The marketing director for a soft drink corporation wanted to come up with a novel way to package soft drinks. He spent time listing all the ways products and liquids can be packaged. He then turned off his self-censor by giving himself an idea quota of 120 ways to package things. This forced him to list every single thought he had no matter how obvious or absurd. The first third were his usual ideas, the next third became more interesting and complex and the last third became fantastical and absurd as he stretched his imagination to meet his quota.
How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a long time, so I thought I would write you a letter. I need some innovative ideas about packaging our soft drinks – a package that would create a new experience for the consumer. Right now, as you now, our soft drinks are packaged in bottles and cans. I’m trying to think of ways to make our packaging innovative and novel in such a way that it will heighten consumer attention. So far, I’ve researched the methodology of packaging, brainstormed for ideas, and have asked everyone I know for their thoughts.
Reviewing my list of ideas I’ve noticed a theme of environmental concerns. Citizens have become aware and sensitive to what happens to discarded bottles and cans. So I think the package should be environmentally friendly. Another theme, I noticed, is “put to other uses.” In other words, how else can the consumer use the package? A cousin of mine told me about his consumer experiences when he lived in a very poor section of Guatemala. Soft drinks in bottles and cans were too expensive for the natives. Consequently domestic sodas were measured and poured into sandwich baggies which the natives brought with them.
I need your help. Please deliver your ideas to me within three days.
The Idea: A biodegradable plastic bag in the shape of a soda bottle, this bag saves buyers bottle deposit money and retains the drink’s fizz and experience, while simultaneously being more environmentally friendly. Being new and fun, it actually creates a new brand experience adapted to cultural environmental tendencies that local consumers are sure to appreciate. Additionally, the plastic bags afford greater flexibility in storage options and can also be re-used by the consumer as a storage bag for other liquids. When re-filled, the bag regains its bottle shape with the brand name clearly visible thus extending consumer brand awareness. Additionally, the product has new market potential in impoverished countries