Solve the problem by not thinking about the problem

“Faster. Faster! FASTER. Weeeeeeeee.”

It doesn’t matter what happened that day. It could’ve been bad. Awful. The worst day I’ve ever had. But it doesn’t matter. Because sometimes as I walk home through the park, there’s a father pushing his daughter on the roundabout. And it always brings a smile to my face.

The father is tired. Part of him is cursing the infinite energy of a daughter who thinks her father is superman. Part of him is trying to be superman for her. To spin the roundabout faster and faster and keep that smile spread across her face.

I was with a friend the other day. We were talking about juggling projects. He said he likes to work on one at a time. In a linear fashion. Not moving onto the next one until the present one is finished.

That’s not me. I find that kind of focus difficult to maintain. Mostly because, at heart, I’m lazy. If something gets difficult, I don’t like to dwell on it. I prefer to switch to something else and make progress there instead. 

It’s something I learned from William T. Sherman, a US Civil War commander.  The man with a single path is easily thwarted. The man with many paths is harder to impede. Why? Because if one path is blocked, energy and attention can be switched to another. Strategically, it’s a great way to maintain momentum and productivity. 

What’s the link between a father pushing his daughter on a roundabout and a civil war commander? Unconscious thought theory

Unconscious thought theory is the idea that: 

​“the unconscious mind is capable of performing tasks outside of one’s awareness, and that unconscious thought (UT) is better at solving complex tasks, where many variables are considered, than conscious thought (CT), but is outperformed by conscious thought in tasks with fewer variables.”

Most of the projects I’m engaged with have many variables. Especially writing. I’ll give you an example. The idea for this post has been pinned to my whiteboard for the past week. Every day, I’ve seen it. And while I may not dwell on it, it still registers. 

Imagine your mental machinery is like a roundabout. It doesn’t spin on it’s own. It needs a push from an outside source to continue moving.

The index card pinned to my whiteboard is the outside force that propelled the creation of this post.

The quotes printed and framed above my desk encourage me to think about my professional and personal development. 

Instead of pretty pictures, I have concepts and ideas as my laptop’s wallpaper. That way, I’m reminded of important ideas throughout the day.

I have my morning, writing and end-of-day and rituals pinned to my whiteboard. Why? To remind me to uphold them and help me improve them.

At the front of my notebook, I have diagrams and maxims that I’ll look at when I have two minutes and nothing else to do.

On my bookshelves, certain books are positioned so I see them every day.

All these things leverage unconscious thought theory. Without consciously thinking about these things, I can make progress in them. 

If I have a particularly difficult problem, I don’t worry. All I do is put a reminder of the problem somewhere I’ll see it regularly. Then without making a conscious effort, I can turn these ideas over and consider them from different angles.

I don’t have to sit there and labour over how to structure a piece of writing. I can put the constituent elements somewhere where I can see them and allow my subconscious to do most of the work.

If I’m launching something, I don’t need to spend hours driving my brain to exhaustion. I can make some notes and come back to them a few days later and improve them. After a few weeks, I’ll have a solid set of ideas.

All these things are just gentle prods for the mind. Like the father pushing his daughter faster and faster, these little pushes can help you think wider and deeper. 

Yes, there’ll be times when you have to do it the hard way. When you have to discipline yourself, sit there and think. But those times are for the later stages. In the beginning, when you’re thrashing and still exploring the many options and pathways available, you can use prods. You can place things in your environment that jog your mind back towards a problem or an opportunity. And without thinking about it, you can make progress.