How to Grow Your Imagination in Secret

Metal claw emerging from an egg

Image by O Palsson

We have all had the experience of taking our mind off a problem only to have the solution come to us like manna from heaven.

Whether it is a creative answer to a difficult brief, an elegant way to write a line of text or even just the name of that actor from the movie you saw last night, it seems to come from within and it can be deeply satisfying when it happens. Archimedes, who devised a solution for measuring the volume of irregular objects while he was in the bath, will know the feeling.

No one has spoken more eloquently about this phenomenon than Vladimir Nabokov. In the epilogue to his remarkable novel Lolita he explains that he had written a short story on a similar theme some years previously but was unsatisfied with the result and shelved it. A full nine years later he came back to it and found that the germ of the idea “..had grown in secret the claws and wings of a novel”.

Copywriter Gary Bencivenga puts it like this:

When you give your subconscious a target that you want to hit, it will pull into itself and eventually share with your conscious mind all kinds of resources that you never knew you had within you to make that happen.

So how do we go about harnessing this power? How do we let our unconscious mind know that we have a problem for it? The technique I have developed makes use of the unlimited resource that is our subconscious in a way that makes finding difficult solutions seem effortless.

Take it Easy

If I were to distill the technique it into its simplest and most beautiful form – and strap in for this ’cause it’s going to blow you away – I would have to put it like this:

Don’t Try Too Hard.

There it is. Golden isn’t it?

Let me explain how it works for me.

If I am doing a page layout, for example, that just isn’t ‘popping’, I leave it for half a day and come back to it to see if my mind has ‘in secret’ come up with a better solution. If I’m writing a tough paragraph that just doesn’t seem to scan, I might leave it overnight and come back to it in the morning.

Normally these spaces of time are enough to allow the possibilities of a higher quality of output to filter down and one has the experience of the problem solving itself. If, after a bit of effort, the solution is not there, I’ll leave it again.

It seems to depend on the difficulty of the challenge but you will eventually find that, given enough small effort and some space between each ‘request’ to one’s inner self, the problem will work itself out.

But what about a more involved problem? Say I am rebranding a major company, or I need a creative solution to a major issue in my life? I couldn’t just sit at my computer and start working; that would be reckless and counter-productive. I need to study. And this is where the technique really comes into its own.

This is how I recommend you do it.

How to Grow Claws and Wings in Secret

  1. Make some space for yourself, ideally away from any interruptions. Turn off your phone, your email and your internet.
  2. Grab a pen and lots of paper. Gather round you some resources that you might find useful, whether design books, poetry books, magazines, artwork, colour swatches, scrapbooks, anything that you might want to reference.
  3. Set yourself a timer for 40 minutes.
  4. Write down on your piece of paper the problem that you need a solution to. I recommend framing it as a question:

    What is a brilliant and creative solution to my design problem?

    What would make a startling and innovative idea for my novel?

  5. Doodle, brainstorm, mind map, write a stream of consciousness, look through your resources, do whatever it is you need to do to think about the problem, but keep coming back to it and asking yourself the question.
  6. At the point that you feel you are making too much effort: stop. For me 40 minutes is definitely the outer limit of my concentration and also seems to be a good amount of time for me to suppress my insane curiosity for the outside world. But sometimes I will stop well before the timer is up. The moment you feel you are straining yourself you need to put the problem away, sometimes that can be only ten minutes in.
  7. Take at least an hour out, maybe half a day, maybe a couple of days. You need to allow your inner resource to bat the problem around and come up with a solution. If you make a cup of tea and sit back down you are not letting your mind ‘pull into itself’.
  8. Take as many sessions as you think you need or are available. The answer may come to you as you are doing these sessions or it may come to you at the strangest of times.
  9. If you have the big idea, it may need fleshing out, so break the subsequent ideas sessions into more focussed sessions:

    How could I bring out the themes of my novel?

    What colours could be used in this illustration?

Why It Works

Claws and Wings

This technique maximises the ‘claws and wings’ scenario that Nabokov spoke of. You pose yourself a problem and then you let your inner self resolve it. It sounds like a good deal to me. Dr. Maxwell Maltz explains that when people try to solve a problem consciously, they become anxious and fearful of the results which in turn stops the creative process dead. It’s a lot easier, says Maltz, if you let go of the problem and let your subconscious mind take over.


If you sit down and task yourself with the job of devising your magnum opus and don’t get up until you have the idea, then you would be forgiven for being struck by crippling self doubt. However if you break the task down into smaller chunks and in manageable idea-sessions then you will gradually edge nearer and nearer to the masterpiece you have in you. As George McFly says: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” (Back to the Future Part 1. In the alternative 1985 when George is a science fiction writer. And he should know.)


In this technique, because you stop when you feel you are expending too much mental energy it makes the sessions both meditative and enjoyable. Far from dreading going back to the creative idea that could potentially mean so much to you, you actively look forward to these sessions as good way to spend some time with yourself. If you want your muse to come and dance with you, you need to make it fun for her.


By doing this technique it feels as if you are living a charmed life. It feels like all the hard work is being done for you. By you!

Over to You

Have you ever had the experience of a solution coming to you at the strangest of times?

What do you do to find the answer to difficult creative problems?

What’s that odd scratching noise…?

About the Author: Mike Kammerling is a graphic designer, blogger and wide-eyed boy, whose mission at Tinder + Sparks Design is to make business beautiful. You can find more musings on design and creativity at his design blog.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post


  1. Mike, I like your notion of using your subconscious to develop a project. I often do that just a bit differently. If I am writing a blog at my computer, for instance, and appear to have writer’s block, I may get up and begin to do some cleaning. I am now using the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence and not the verbal-linguistic, which stalled and refused to work. As I work, new thoughts come to mind all the while and as I consider these and think about how I’ll use them, by the time I’m finished with the cleaning, I’m more than ready to tackle the blog again. Other ways I have approached this “change-up” to have a break from writing are to take a brisk walk and look for a something in nature that inspires me about the theme of the blog. Or, I might have a shower. I cannot begin to say how many ideas come to me in the bath or shower. No matter what, I recognize when it is time to get out of my chair and do something entirely different.

    • Thanks Robyn.

      For readers curious about bodily-kinesthetic and verbal-linguistic intelligence, check out the great piece Robyn wrote for Lateral Action about The 8 Types of Creative Intelligence.

    • Hi Robyn, this is absolutely the kind of thing I’m talking about and it’s very interesting what you say about using a different intelligence which is not only good in and of itself, it also seems to free up the intelligence that was having trouble in the first place. The added touch for you is that by the end of it not only do you have some great new ideas and solutions, you also have a clean house!

  2. It is sometimes frightening how solutions seem to spring up spontaneously from our unconscious. Doodling, brainstorming, and mind-mapping are all great active forms of creativity, but the real gems always seem to come when you are doing something else…cooking, running, sitting on the toilet, or about to go to sleep.

    • Sleeping is a very interesting one Steven, so many times I have gone to sleep with a vague problem in my head with no expectation and then woken up with a blindingly brilliant answer. Thomas Edison would actually sit in his favourite chair with his arm out and a number of ballbearings in his hand and as he drifted off to sleep his hand would relax, the ballbearings would fall, and he would be instantly awoken. He would then record his thoughts at that moment, and, occasionally, the great would find the answer in the ideas that came to him.

      And don’t even get me started on the toilet, it seems to be the first place I go when I need answers. I wont go into any more detail….

  3. I’ve witnessed this happen on a lot of occasions. I’ll have no ideas for a layout or be stuck trying to solve a coding problem and get frustrated and walk away from it. The next day or several hours later when I return to the problem there is always some progress made to solving it.

  4. Excellent advice; nothing feeds creativity like long (ish) blocks of uninterrupted time!

    (BTW, Archimedes figured out how to measure the volume of irregular objects while in his bathtub, not the weight.)

  5. Dear Mike:
    Thanks for this stimulating post about a difficult-to-describe phenomenon. I tend to set writing intentions every morning and move through some yoga postures and harnessed breath work as a way to prime my imagination. Sometimes, flashes arrive within minutes – crazy. (Sort of like Robyn’s splendid advice on engaging Gardner’s other intelligences) Other times, it’s three days later. Other times, a year later – no kidding. I tend to write essays and articles this way, too: Prime and then let it smolder, incubate, whatever the metaphor, for several days or weeks. Then, the drafting, at least, feels more effortless.

    I think Richard Ford wrote a wonderful essay about “The Castle of Indolence” on the importance for writers to take days off.

    Loved that Nabokov reference, too.


  6. Interesting piece, very familiar creative process.

    Don’t push it too hard resonates with me. Whenever I force my way through creative, I often end up being stuck. But leaving it and giving it some time, naturally what to add next comes up by itself. Like Mark pointed out in one of his previous post about the benefit of taking a nap, most times just closing your eyes for some few minutes away from the creative process can allow your mind to rejuvenate and come up with fresh insight or ideas for the task or problem at hand. It does definitely work, but like most things in life, consistence practice is required for one to achieve mastery of the habit.

    Thanks for the privilege of learning from your wealth of knowledge, 🙂

  7. may I add a little voice here that:

    there seems to be some, mysterious, invisible rapport between our creative subconscious and OTHER PEOPLE’S brains as well!!

    Sometimes, a solution or a hint for the solution comes totally unexpectedly from your friend or somebody you don’t even know, or in an unexpected and unrelated email!! They don’t know what you’ve been trying to solve, yet, strangely enough, sometimes they give you a key to ‘unlock’ your inner door, or whatever.

    is it an illumination by our creative subconsciousness’s invisible torch?!

    Thank you so much for such a wonderfully thought-provoking article filled with great advice!

    • Curioser and curiouser…! 🙂

      A couple of facts from neuroscience that may be relevant:

      1. We all have ‘mirror neurons’ that help us empathise with others by sensing their emotions, as if they were ours.

      2. Most of our emotions, like most of our cognition, are unconscious. Researchers found that we are often better at identifying other people’s emotions than our own.

      So maybe we should pay more attention to what we ‘pick up’ from other people – and be quicker to ask their opinion…

  8. Nice and practical suggestions…



  9. I’m sure you’ve heard of Oblique Strategies from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt?

    In essence it’s a way to unlock your creativity by taking a word or phrase and applying to your current situation, whatever that may mean to you. It’s a fun way to look at things when you’re feeling stuck.

    I wrote a post about it but for some reason my site is down at the moment. =(

    I also send out a #dailyOS tweet each morning people could use to prompt some creative thinking. Feel free to add to the hashtag.

    Thanks for the post.

  10. Chris Vaughan says:

    Thanks, Mike for a very helpful and positive article. I think it’s a good idea to get thoroughly acquainted with your muse/genius/other self. What time of day it likes to communicate and where. Mine likes to go for walks round Edgbaston Reservoir first thing – tho’ I prefer later in the day. It likes long train journeys, latenights with a glass of wine or two listening to music – I prefer more than two but the muse easily gets befuddled. It also seems to like being in the shower, peeling the potatoes or anything mindless for its solutions to saunter into my mind.
    And it is good to realise that whilst we’re being cool and relaxed, what a hard task it performs. It has to organise ideas and get the party going. Ideas usually come dressed formally and hang around with others of their ilk in the kitchen. They have to be persuaded to lose their inhibitions and onto the dance floor or better still their clothes and into bed. As Degas used to say, “The muses work hard all day and come out at night to play.”
    Also, a point made by Joanna Young, cited by Robyn McMaster, it’s good to give our harrassed and hard-working muse a specific number of new ideas to work to so it knows how many to invite to the party, in the first place.
    Always be positive: In the next twent four hours, I want five ways to increase my income this year. Not: How come I seem to have no money left at the end of the week? You won’t like that answer because you always get an answer in the form the question is posed.

    • Chris, what a brilliant response to the article, you and your muse are quite a couple! I’d love to see you wondering around Edgbaston Reservoir talking to each other one day..

      Excellent Degas quote aswell, I’ve never heard that before and if I had believe me it would have been at the top of the article.

      Thanks for a great addition to the post

  11. I’ll be stumped on a question at work on a busy day. What I do is repeat the question to myself until I know I won’t forget it and then go on about my workday. I don’t put any more effort into finding the answer. A few hours later it pops into my head.

    • It’s remarkable isn’t it David? I heard another good example recently, although what he was grappling with took a bit longer than a day to decipher.

      For years, Einstein couldn’t reconcile two seemingly contradictory concepts of time and space until one day, while working at the Patent Office in Bern, he saw the town clock and it struck him: time can operate in varying ways depending on the speed you are travelling; Special Relativity was born. Born in Bern.

  12. tricia tinsley says:

    I have used Mike’s method many times and it has never failed to produce. After reading the book “What the Bleep Do We Know?” I am convinced that the universe operates like a giant computer with a huge database of stored knowledge that our brains can access through tiny computer-like structures deep within our neurons that digitally interface with the quantum level of reality, where all things are possible. I’ve found that I can speed up the process of receiving answers by chanting sanskrit mantras that either focus my mind on being one with the universe or relate to the type of issue I am grappling with. There is one ingredient I’ve found that is absolutely necessary for this type of guidance: A QUIET MIND. I suppose that’s why chanting helps — it quiets my mind. And the activities where answers and ideas frequently come that are cited in the comments (the shower, taking a walk, etc.) are activities where the mind is quiet.