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
- Make some space for yourself, ideally away from any interruptions. Turn off your phone, your email and your internet.
- 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.
- Set yourself a timer for 40 minutes.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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.