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 unconscious mind at work. Your unconscious 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 thinking about their problem. Fehr, the French scientist, said he observed that in his lifetime practically all good ideas came to him when he was not working on a problem or even thinking about a problem, and that most of his contemporaries make their discoveries in the same way. When Thomas Edison was stonewalled by a problem, he would lie down and take a nap and allow his unconscious mind to work on it.
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 unconscious mind at work.
An easy way to communicate with your unconscious mind and get it working for you to solve a problem is to write it a letter to yourself. 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 unconscious mind about the problem. 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 unconscious to work on a solution.
The letter should read just like a letter you would send to a real person. Imagine that your unconscious is all-knowing and can solve any problem that is properly stated.
3. Instruct your unconscious to find the solution. Write, “Your mission is to find the solution to the problem. I would like the solution in two days.”
4. Seal the letter and put it away. You may even want to mail it to yourself.
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 unconscious.
6. Open the letter in two 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.
EXAMPLE: 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. He then wrote the following letter to himself:
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 soda. 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 fun 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 the time he was in the peace corps in a very poor section of Guatemala. Soft drinks in bottles were too expensive for the natives. He told me popular domestic sodas are instead poured into sandwich baggies and sold.
I need your help. Please deliver your ideas to me within three days.
The Idea that came three days later: 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 container for other foods and liquids. Additionally, the product adapts itself to new markets in impoverished countries.
Michael Michalko is a creative thinking expert and author of several books on creative thinking which include the highly-acclaimed Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques). http://www.creativethinking.net