It’s not easy to come up with creative ideas. One of the great myths of the ‘innovation gurus’ suggests that actively brainstorming possible solutions is the best way to stumble across a brilliant idea.
The reality is slightly more complicated. Brainstorming can only truly be effective if you give your brain the opportunity to serve up more than the same useless ideas your conscious mind is already familiar with. True creativity stems from the subconscious mind, of which traditional boardroom brainstorming rarely ever seeks the guidance.
My favourite explanation for how this process works is to imagine a small room with two men sat by a whiteboard. One of the men is imaginative and sublimely creative and yet hopelessly shy. The other man is extremely passionate and committed to his ideas, but is equally dominant and unwilling to listen to others.
If you were to enter the room a pose a question that required the men to work together creatively, there should be no prizes for guessing how the subsequent brainstorming sessions would unfold. The dominant man would lead the way, pitching his ideas with relentless enthusiasm but failing to tap in to the creative thought patterns of his colleague.
So what if we don’t want to harness the passion and conviction of Mr. Confident? What if we’re striving to dig deeper in to the creative mind of his shy colleague? The popular solution is to distract Mr. Confident. Let him watch TV, give him an iPad, do whatever is necessary to allow his creative colleague to take control of the session and present some truly creative ideas.
This drawn out metaphor is actually a very close match for the relationship between our conscious and subconscious mind.
The conscious mind is very loud, objective and logical – but it crucially lacks the ability to ‘think outside the box’. The subconscious mind, although not shy by nature, is a passive and reluctant observer to the thoughts we decide to run wild with. Just like the quiet colleague, it sits and waits for the room to turn silent.
Of course, the subconscious is infinitely more capable of producing breakthrough ideas, but to allow those ideas to develop we need our conscious minds to ‘tune out’ and delegate the job. This is what leads to the moment of inspiration in the middle of the night, or the comical lightbulb effect where brilliance strikes while you’re busy cooking dinner.
The subconscious mind never stops working on the questions you present to it, which is why it can be hugely beneficial to pose any questions that require creativity immediately before you distract your conscious mind.
If your favourite TV show is about to start in 5 minutes, it can be damn near impossible to get ‘real work’ done in the interim. So don’t bother. Instead, turn over your most challenging questions to the subconscious.
It’s a big help to write down the question, even if you feel like an embarrassment for doing so.
As an affiliate marketer, I might find myself reading the following dilemma over and over again: “How can I increase the profit on Campaign X from $100/day to $500/day?” Now if I turned over that question to my conscious mind, or worse – started to brainstorm the possibilities on my whiteboard – I would probably come up with the same ideas and the same problems.
But after repeating the question, and then sodding off to watch some TV, I can interrupt my usual line of thoughts and let the subconscious go about finding solutions. Those same solutions would rarely make it on to the whiteboard with the loud guy in the room doing all the talking.
You don’t have to watch TV. Simply keeping a puzzle book by your desk is a brilliant way of short-circuiting the conscious mind. As long as you’re kept busy with crosswords and number games, you’ll be unlikely to interfere with the subconscious genius at work.
The next time you’re seeking creative inspiration, don’t dwell on it. Pose the question, hand it over to your subconscious, distract yourself, and wait for the delivery. Having seen how stuck in its ways the corporate battlefield can be, I would suggest mentioning the process to your boss beforehand. I’m glad I work at home!
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