Problem Solving: Let Your Subconscious Do Its Work

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Creativity is not necessarily a mysterious process, but takes place under the surface. Let it.

When I’m faced with a problem or creative challenge whose solution is eluding me, I don’t pursue it. I mentally walk away from it and move on to something else. I’m not avoiding it or ignoring it, I’m simply letting my subconscious take its shot because I’ve learned that it usually sorts things out and presents the solution eventually. But to make this work it helps to do some prepping before you turn the issue over to seemingly mysterious forces.

Give it the fuel it needs

Your subconscious handoff only works if you thoroughly understand the actual problem you are dealing with and have explored the available options. At least those you can conceive of. This is done by doing research, familiarizing yourself with terms you are not clear on, and looking at ways others have dealt with it. This research fills the gas tank for your subconscious, giving it the tools it needs to surface a solution.

This process is the source of the ‘90% perspiration, 10% inspiration’ concept, which seeks to debunk myths regarding innate talent. Whether you’re an artist, a writer, or an inventor, concepts and ideas don’t land in your lap automagically. There is no aha! moment, at least not how that is often perceived. Such a moment is possible, but only if you’ve put the work in first. The work is not only research, it is your collective experience in solving similar problems. And persistence. But sometimes hammering at something has to be put aside.

Take a walk

I’ve learned, after years as a writer and marketer, that when I’ve hit a wall and it ain’t happening, to walk away. And I mean that literally. I’ll shut my computer down, set my devices on mute, put on a hat, and get out. And I’ll take a long walk, leaving all the things I’ve been tangled in behind, or in my head, to stew. If I have a particularly thorny issue, one that involves life decisions or restarting an important stalled project, I might get on a train and go somewhere. I’m not recommending that specifically as a panacea, but for me it is almost the perfect environment for changing perspective and letting things settle. But because they settle on the surface, it doesn’t mean there isn’t work being done.

Restarting a novel

I got stalled on my second novel. I’d reached a point where it was a stand-alone novella, too long to be a short story and too short to be publishable. I didn’t want to shelve it because I felt that what I had was strong and might speak to readers about a challenging subject: grief and rebuilding. And I also felt that there was more to the story about a woman whose husband has unexpectedly committed suicide and who has moved to a new city to escape the memories and put her life back together. It was written in third person omniscient POV wherein the writer and reader are observers of not only her behavior but also her thoughts. And I covered the entire arc of her beginning to become a human again. But it didn’t feel like the story was complete. Stuck, I decided to set it aside.

A month or so later I was on a train to NYC, gazing at views of the Mohawk River, drinking coffee, and in a bit of a reverie. I decided to take out my laptop and read what I had from beginning to end. As I did, a solution presented itself just like that. My character wanted to tell her version of the story, in her voice, from ten years after the fact. She just started in, wiser, more confident and with the perspective of experience. She is still talking to me as I write.

Mysterious but reproducible

In my example, the subconscious took the challenge and eventually provided a solution, having looked at it from all angles. I’ve learned over the years that this isn’t some amazing talent. It’s a normal process anyone can apply if you have the discipline to let it do its work. That discipline often involves clearing your mind through that long walk, a train ride, or mediation. Don’t push it and the answers will probably come to you. And from you.

Former software marketer. Former musician. Writer, nine non-fiction books, two novels, Buddhist, train lover. Amateur cook, lover of life most of the time!

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