Need a Fresh Idea? Prepare to “Incubate”

Often fresh, new ideas occur to you after a period away from your work. That’s why many authorities on creativity recommend taking breaks to let this process happen.  But  just taking a break isn’t enough. How often have you come back, after a break, and been in exactly the same stuck situation as you were before?

The subconscious is not active–it can’t figure things out for you. You need to prepare your mind so the time spent away “incubating” can pay off. That means, take a few minutes to think about what kind of a solution you need.

For example, some years ago I bogged down rehearsing a new script. I knew I needed to speed up the process, but although  I took a couple of breaks, I didn’t get any new ideas.

I finally got the rehearsal process moving by doing some thinking on paper about what kind of solution I needed. I realized I was trying to combine rehearsal with editing (a bad combination–I should separate them) and that I wasn’t sure how to do the editing effectively. I needed a better way to keep track of changes for the script. Then I took a break to “incubate.”

An idea occurred to me. It may sound silly to you, but here it is: It occurred to me that I could use bigger pieces of paper to make notes on the problems. (I had been using little sticky notes.) This was exactly the encouragement I needed. I was able to settle down and go through the whole script in less time than I had wasted being stuck on just a small part of it.

What happened there? I set a very specific intention–figure out how to keep track of changes for the script. And I held it in the back of my mind (as a standing order) during my break. As I recall, when I came back to my desk I saw the little sticky notes and felt a sense of frustration–they were messy and confusing. That observed fact connected with my intention, to generate the idea of using bigger pieces of paper.

The moral of this story is: new ideas don’t come by magic. They come when you prepare for them, by describing to yourself (in whatever terms make sense) what new ideas you wish you had. When you do this, you set up a “standing order” to your subconscious. Then, as you go through your day, something you run into by chance can trigger a new connection that is just what you needed.

This is why I put “incubate” in scare quotes. I agree the phenomenon exists (as I describe it here). But most people seem to think the incubation is some magical process that happens in the subconscious. I believe all the action is in peripheral awareness–with a standing order in the background that can trigger an idea based on some fresh observation.

 

May 13, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Ideas on Breaking Habits

Here’s an extremely interesting article which discusses the difference between making and breaking habits.

Short version: Habits can be made, by adding actions to something that already happens. To break a habit, you can sometimes substitute an alternate behavior. If that doesn’t work, you need to use what the author calls “progressive extremism.” Well worth reading.

Here’s the full link: http://www.nirandfar.com/2015/04/bad-habits.html?utm_source=NirAndFar&utm_campaign=d31a4c6049-book_deal&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_9f67e23487-d31a4c6049-97689257&goal=0_9f67e23487-d31a4c6049-97689257

May 9, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Ask An Easier Question

Asking yourself questions is essential in thinking. It’s the way you get information out of your subconscious and into conscious consideration.

Your subconscious is a huge repository of past observations, past conclusions, past training. It is where your expertise resides. But only some fraction of that information can be activated at a given time. Questions activate the information so you can use it into your thinking.

But what do you do if the information lies dormant–even when you ask yourself about it?

Suppose you ask yourself a reasonable question (like “what should I be doing right now?” or “how am I going to explain this to person X?” or “how are we going to get this done on time?”) and the response you get back from your subconscious is “I don’t know”?  Or the more emphatic: “Aaaaaye donno.”

When this happens, don’t despair. You probably know much more than your subconscious is letting on. What happened is that the question you asked was a little too hard for you. You don’t have a ready-made, pre-packaged answer for that question. You will need to put one together from pieces of information–pieces you can lure from your subconscious databanks by asking an easier question.

To me, “ask an easier question” stands for the more complicated thought, “soften up your subconscious with patsy questions it can answer that inexorably lead to your figuring out the answer to the question it resisted.” It’s like you’re playing “good cop” with the suspect–playing along with what you get, edging toward what you really want–a full confession of the truth!

So, for example, if I were a little stuck on a question like “how am I going to explain this to person X,” I might ask myself things like, “what does X need to know?” and “how would I explain it to someone else who’s not as touchy?” The right follow-up questions would be ones I felt I *could* answer. Spending the time on them would help me put into place the information I would need to build a full answer to the original question.

“Ask an easier question” is a sound bite to remember. When your subconscious says, “Aaaaye donno,” ask yourself an easier question, and find out what it *does* know that can help you with your task.

May 7, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Eye Movement Technique

There’s much we don’t know yet about the subconscious. Here’s an example of a strange phenomenon that is sure to lead to interesting future discoveries–eventually:

If you find you are obsessing on a thought, you can stop it with a simple rapid eye-movement technique. Here are the instructions, from The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (by Davis, Eschelman & McKay) p. 132:

[When you are stressed by the thought,] keep your head still and rapidly move your eyes back and forth between two predetermined points. [Repeat] twenty to twenty-five times. You can rapidly move your eyes between two corners of a room or window, between one hand resting on each of your knees, or between two sides of a table. As soon as you start moving your eyes, stop concentrating on the stressful event, and let your mind go.

This bizarre technique actually works. I use it when I am obsessing about “things to do tomorrow” when I should be unwinding for the night or enjoying a swim.

Why does it work? Well, here’s what I observe, introspectively. I simply can’t do both things at once. I can’t both move my eyes rapidly and think about everything I have to do. When I take a few seconds to make the rapid eye movements, it feels like I have “flushed my buffers.” I break the vicious cycle of the thought feeding on itself. Once I break the cycle, the thought that was obsessing me is gone.

It turns out that there is whole school of therapy that uses this technique (in conjunction with specially targeted questioning processes) to help people process emotional trauma. Exactly how and why it helps is yet to be explained. There is some speculation that eye movement is connected to how we store memories or how we do high-level processing.

So, how should you deal with strange information such as this? I hope you won’t ignore it just because we don’t understand it fully. We know the phenomenon exists. Don’t take my word for it–you can try it yourself. Sometime when you are obsessing about something and know you should stop (but can’t seem to), try this rapid eye movement technique. There is no risk to trying it–and I have no doubt you will get the same introspective proof that it works that I did.

Until psychology advances much further, “try it and see for yourself” will be a necessary part of learning about the field. Your own introspective observation is a crucial source of evidence.

May 5, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Picking Favorites

Some years ago, I attended a seminar on “The Art of Introspection.” The speaker (Psychologist Edwin Locke) encouraged the audience to consciously pick favorites. Wherever you are–in a hotel lobby, at work, watching a movie, reading an article–pick your favorite aspect. By taking the time to identify your preferences, you strengthen your own values and get extra enjoyment from them.

For example, I pick favorites when I go to museums. After I’ve looked around a room, I stop to choose my favorite painting. After I’ve been through all the rooms in a section, I choose my top favorite for that section.

This makes my museum trip more enjoyable and helps me identify my artistic preferences. In addition, picking favorites has two cognitive payoffs.

First, it counters museumitis–that glassy-eyed, mentally numb state which comes from looking at each item with equal intensity. The same strain happens when you try to proofread a table of numbers by simply checking one after another. It is difficult to concentrate afresh on each and every item when there are dozens. Trying to do so creates a mental strain that interferes with any degree of concentration. In no time you become bug-eyed and bored.

The solution is to add variety to the process. In proof-reading, you might get a partner switch off tasks, proofread backwards, proof only 20 numbers at a time, etc.

At the museum, picking favorites breaks up the monotony. You look more purposefully at the candidates for favorite (and pay less attention to the others), plus you get a little break for reflection when you come to the end of each room.

Second, picking favorites aids memory. When you identify something as a positive value and spend a little time thinking about it, you are more likely to remember it. My museum trips no longer blur together, thanks to this technique.

Like many of my tips, this is a small action with big payoffs. Next time you feel bored or you are just “hanging around,” make a point to pick favorites in the scene (or perhaps in some area of your life that warrants a few minutes of reflection). Thinking about what you like will perk you up and put your mind in a higher gear.

May 3, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Thinking on Your Feet

I often get asked, how do you apply “Thinking Tactics” to thinking on your feet? For example, suppose you are in a meeting, and your boss suddenly turns to you and asks for your opinion. How do you come up with a quick answer? You can’t stop to “think on paper” in that situation.

First, I want to point out that most of what we call “thinking on your feet” is actually “remembering on your feet.” Succinct, essentialized answers are rarely entirely spontaneous. If you know in advance that you will be asked questions (after a presentation, or at an interview, for example), it’s crucial to prepare for them in advance. Make a list of questions you might get and figure out your answers by sitting at your desk and thinking on paper. This gives you the time and quiet to think in depth. Then you can simply draw on that past thinking when you’re asked the question on the spot. And you look very sharp in the process!

That said, we all get into situations where we’re asked questions and don’t know the answers off the top of our heads. What do you do then? You can’t just will yourself to answer–that’s a prescription for going blank. Sometimes you can put off giving an answer, by promising to get back to the questioner with your thoughts.

But sometimes you need to say something right then. In this situation, I suggest you turn the conversation into “thinking aloud.” Do this deliberately. Say something like, “That’s a good question.  Let me think aloud here to see if I can work out an answer.”

When you give that preamble, you warn the other person that they shouldn’t expect a polished, succinct answer. You get tacit permission to ramble a bit as you follow your train of thought, which is what you need to do. You balance your need to do some thinking, with the listener’s need to hear your answer right now.

“Thinking aloud” has the same basic rule as “thinking on paper.” Use full sentences! That helps you think step by step. And since you have an audience, make each sentence as intelligible to the other person as possible. Your thinking aloud may turn into a discussion as they chime in with helpful information or answers to questions you pose in your thinking.

As soon as you have an answer, switch from “thinking aloud” to summing up: Deliberately bring the conversation back to the question and your answer. Say something like, “Okay, now I have an answer to your question….” Then state your answer as succinctly as possible.

Alternately, if you find that you are raising a lot of issues, and there isn’t going to be a quick answer, you could sum up with something like, “Well, you see that there are too many issues here, and I’m not going to get an answer off the top of my head. I think I need some time to look at the issues I’ve just raised so I can give you a responsible answer.”

By warning them that you are thinking aloud, then deliberately summing up your answer, you can maintain a professional demeanor, even when you’re put on the spot.

Next time you are impressed by someone “thinking on their feet,” pay careful attention to whether they are doing new, fresh thinking aloud–or are cashing in on previous thinking they’ve done. Either way, you can learn something about how to capitalize on your own thinking prowess when you need to “think on your feet.”

 

 

April 2, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Use a Physical Process to Release Tension

I admit to being a fanatic who looks to thinking as a solution to all problems. I look for a psychological cause for everything that happens to me. And I look for a thinking process to help me deal with everything that happens to me.

If I cut my finger, yes, I put on a Bandaid. But I also reflect on what I was doing, and consider whether I need to be more mindful of my actions. If so, I spend a moment considering how that can be accomplished.

Due to this predilection, I used to be puzzled that quite a few of my friends go for a long run when they are upset. But eventually I understood: they exercise because the intense physical activity reduces body tension. If you reduce body tension, you can more easily deal with the emotions.

Here’s why: the tension intensifies the experience of some emotions (such as anger) and masks and/or interferes with the experience of other emotions (such as joy). A process that reduces the tension–literally physically relaxes the body–provides a timeout, so that some emotions will pass, and creates a neutral physical baseline, so that emotions are experienced normally, and you can more easily identify them and sort out their meaning.

Let me elaborate on this important point.

First, tension masks many emotions with pain. When you are extremely tense, you experience pain in your neck, in your shoulders, maybe in your back, sometimes in other joints. If the pain takes your attention, it will mask the subtle experiences of many emotions.

Emotions have signature physical experiences associated with them. There is the frission of surprise that runs from your belly up your spine. There is the clutching of your stomach at a moment of intense fear. There is the choking feeling in your throat when you feel hurt and invisible. All of these are difficult to distinguish when there is an overriding experience of pain. The pain gets the primary attention.

And of course, sometimes people simply block out the pain, in which case, they block off awareness of all bodily feelings.

Second, some emotions–such as pure joy–simply can’t be experienced when you are tense all over, because the somatic experience involves a freedom in your breathing that is incompatible with a highly tense state. Moreover, if you’ve ever experienced a bout of chronic pain, you know how pain undermines your access to positive emotions. For those who haven’t, simply note that people in chronic pain are usually grouchy. Most positive emotions involve a feeling of physical freedom and well-being, tension and pain prevent you from having that experience.

The effect of these factors is to make it difficult to introspect your feelings, when you are extremely tense. When you ask yourself “what do I feel?” the answer is, “pain,” “tension,” “aching.”

Another effect is that it is hard to concentrate. You don’t feel good. You tire more easily. You want a break from this bad physical feeling, and moving or resting seems like a good idea. You don’t have free access to emotional signals. Basic tactics like “thinking on paper” and “introspection 101” aren’t as effective when you’re in this state.

I finally understood this deeply a few years ago when I was stiff from having driven 300 miles, twice in a few days. I didn’t pay much attention to the tenstion. Instead, I noticed I had difficulty concentrating and was in a bad mood. I tried my usual tactics, and they weren’t all that effective. Out of desperation, I decided to tackle the physical symptoms of tension directly.

Okay, I said to myself. Exercise. Stretching. Breathing exercises. Alexander self-lessons. Massages. There are many physical processes that reduce physical tension.

I swam, I stretched, I had an Alexander lesson. And suddenly I could concentrate again. Suddenly I was in touch with my feelings again–which were subtle feelings about projects I needed to help me think about work, not intense feelings about some personal issue.

Now I notice whenever there is tension in my neck. I have suddenly become enamored of all the little physical de-tensing techniques that I’ve learned over the years: Stretching at breaks, breathing exercises, etc. I’m raring to go.

Lesson learned. If you feel physical tension, reduce it with a physical mechanism. It’s easy. It makes thinking easier. It is silly not to.

March 31, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Having a Point

There are some skills that people self-identify they need. And there are others that they don’t.

Many people who have a problem getting to the point don’t realize it. But when you talk with them, you see their problem reflected in your own frustration. They say something, you try to clarify. They neither agree nor disagree, but sheer off onto another topic. You ask them a question. The answer doesn’t address the question. The conversation rambles and digresses and circles around, and you can’t pin them down.

Now, sometimes this is deliberate evasiveness, but that is not usually the case. Usually the problem is that they don’t know how to get to the point.

This is a skill that I had to learn consciously, so I am aware, both of how surprising it is to realize you are not, in fact, communicating well, and what is needed to communicate better. There are a number of best practices, but the crucial prerequisite is to have a point.

All three words are crucial.

First, you need to have a point. Many times people come into conversation without a clear purpose. They do not know what they want to say, or even why they are having the conversation. It is impossible to get to the point if you don’t know what it is–you can’t aim for a destination until it’s been identified.

This is why you need to spend at least a moment figuring out why you are having a conversation. If your purpose is to convince the other person of something, you need to know what you are trying to convince them of–you need to identify the point.

On the  other hand, if your purpose is to pass the time, or to explore issues, there may not be a point to communicate–and then you need to make sure you don’t give them reason to believe there is. If you are just exploring and playing devil’s advocate, but you’re acting as if you are trying to convince them of something, they may both confused and frustrated.

Second, in order to get to the point, you need to have one point. One point. If you have multiple points, you need to make them one at a time–and wait until you’ve gotten one across before going on to the next. If you try to make several points at once, the other person will likely not be able to follow you.

Third, the point needs to be a point. A point is a single thought–one complete sentence–which is the conclusion you are trying to get them to reach. You may give examples to concretize the point, you may make an argument to prove the point, you may give contrasting cases to differentiate the point. But whatever you do, whatever you say, it needs to be logically connected to validating the point. You may address their concerns by clarifying the points. You may say a lot of things, but if you want to get to the point, everything you say needs to add up logically to the one point–the conclusion that you are trying to get across.

When everything adds up, a pyramid becomes a great metaphor for the conversation. You build a layers of evidence on a base, narrowing to the point.

But if you include the kitchen sink and anything else that occurs to you along with logical material, you get a pile, not a point.

March 26, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Evening Review

To keep on track with a workload, you need to review your progress daily. I generally recommend taking 15 minutes in the morning to see what you got done, and what you need to do. However, there is a good case to be made to spend a little more time to review in the evening. I was inspired to do this after reading The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.

The evening is the perfect time to reflect on how the day went. Did you do what I intended to do? If so, what made that possible? If not, why not? How would I plan differently another day?

5-10 minutes of “thinking on paper” on these topics is very valuable, because it helps you figure out how to tinker with your schedule. It’s not always obvious how much time certain work will take. Nor is it obvious how much pleasure some recreational activity will bring. To arrange your days to run happily and productively, your need to review what works and what doesn’t.

This works better at night, when you can focus on looking back. In the morning, that can bog you down, just as you are trying to get geared up for the day. At night, it’s satisfying to take a few minutes to reflect. But there’s little risk of bogging down in reflection when you’re tired and ready to go to sleep!

As an added bonus, you get to sleep on it. So when you get to planning the next day, you have already percolated on any issues from the previous day, and a few ideas will probably have come up for what to do differently today. The bottom line: if you take a few minutes for an evening review, it takes less time the next day to get started, and less total time reviewing and planning. Who’da thunk it?

 

 

February 24, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Freewriting

Every tactic is useful only in a context. That includes my favorite general-purpose workhorse, “thinking on paper.” Sometimes it is more efficient to think in your head. Sometimes it is more efficient to discuss an issue with someone else. And sometimes it is more efficient to “freewrite.”

Freewriting is like thinking on paper: you record your thoughts in full sentences as you think them. It’s different because…you have no thinking goal. You record a stream of consciousness, without worrying whether it will go anywhere or not.

When I first heard about freewriting, I was skeptical, and maybe you are, too. But I have found it valuable for creative thinking tasks.

Sometimes when I am trying to come up with a new idea (e.g., newsletter topics or marketing angles), my thinking on paper becomes strained. Systematic questions that usually bring up good ideas stop working. In this situation, I need some way to stay on task, keep ideas percolating, and remove the strain.

Freewriting works perfectly for this. I still have the larger goal of generating a new idea. But my immediate focus is to simply record what’s going on in my mind, some of which is complaints, and some of which is banal. Within about five minutes of starting, some new ideas occur to me spontaneously.

Freewriting helps for several reasons. First, it completely eliminates criticism which can stop new ideas from bubbling up.

Second, it clears out the complaints and banality, just as thinking on paper does. Third, it keeps you at the ready to notice new connections when they get made. And they will. Connections to additional ideas are constantly being triggered from your subconscious. Even your stream of consciousness can provide stimulus for triggering those new connections.

So, if you are feeling stuck while thinking on paper, give yourself permission to freewrite for a few minutes, and see if that frees the logjam.

 

 

 

February 19, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes