How to Have Brilliant Ideas Without Really Trying

It happens to all of us at one time or another. You’re driving to the store, or taking a shower, or walking through the park. When all of a sudden—bam! A solution to that nagging business problem you’ve been wrestling with for three weeks suddenly pops into your head.

But have you also noticed that when you try to consciously force those kinds of brilliant ideas, you just end up mentally exhausted?

The creative process is mysterious. Tapping into your highest creative capabilities tends to happen by putting less effort into the process, not more. And while solving complex business problems still requires some conscious effort, it’s the when and how you apply that effort that could have the biggest impact on your success.

Listen to the podcast episode here.

Hot and Cold Thinking

Your mind is divided into two equally important but distinct systems, each with its own unique characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses.

System 1, or hot cognition, is what we typically think of as the unconscious. The gut feelings and intuitions responsible for those unexpected “a-ha!” moments that tend to happen when you’re showering or zoning out on the couch.

This part of your mind is in charge of the gestation phase of creativity. It synthesizes complex inputs in the background, making new connections between thousands of seemingly unrelated concepts. As a result, ideas come automatically and without any conscious effort on your part.

System 2, or cold cognition, is the slow, effortful, deliberate, and logical side of your brain responsible for language, reasoning, and contemplating the long-term consequences of your actions. It’s the part of your mind that kicks in when you’re struggling to come up with ideas for a blog post, or solve an urgent marketing problem, or stay focused during a boring conversation.

Unlike hot cognition, cold cognition is not particularly good at making complex connections, and requires a tremendous amount of energy to maintain focus. Thinking rationally for long periods of time is exhausting. There’s only so much fuel available in the cold cognition tank, and the more mental energy you spend on one task, the less you’ll have left to spend on another.

As author and professor Edward Slingerland writes in his book Trying Not to Try: “Conscious control is crucial for civilized human life. You could never get large numbers of people to live and work together without employing it on a large scale. But this sort of control is physiologically expensive, fundamentally limited in nature, and easily disrupted.”

And while it might feel easier to just rely on our hot cognition to effortlessly guide us through life, unrestrained intuition can get us into trouble. Our gut feelings operate on innate evolutionary drives that don’t always serve us. When emotions are unrestrained by logic, we tend to become reactive instead of responsive. Our unbridled instincts drive us to do things like eat all the cookies in the box in one sitting, or run away from situations that make us feel even the least bit uncomfortable.

We need both hot and cold cognition—the emotion and the logic—to create at our highest level as entrepreneurs.

The “Trying, Not Trying, Trying” Approach to Creative Breakthroughs

So how do you find the right balance between intellect and intuition in order to maximize your creativity and the quality of your ideas?

One approach is to integrate these two systems—hot and cold—in a way that allow’s them to work together, harnessing each approach’s unique strengths while minimizing the impact of their inherent weaknesses.

There’s an optimal time to focus your conscious mind, and there’s an optimal time to relax that focus and allow the unconscious to take over. The trick is knowing when to use each.

Step 1: Immerse Yourself in the Problem

To solve a complex business problem, your unconscious needs raw material to chew on. You provide that raw material by deeply focusing your attention on the problem you want to solve.

Here’s where this approach may conflict with the typical way that we solve problems at work. In a fast-paced world that tends to value quick answers over high-quality questions, our tendency is to use force, skipping past the “problem exploration” step and jumping right into “problem resolution.” We want the answer, and we want it now.

As a result of this impatience, many of us spend the minimal amount of time necessary to generate at least one somewhat decent idea for a solution. We end up with a shallow, surface level understanding of the problem itself, severely limiting our ability to come up with an effective solution. We approach problems with baked in assumptions about their root causes, and then jump on the same stale solutions over and over again. As a result, the first idea that comes to mind is usually exactly like, or closely related to, a limited set of ideas we’ve tried before.

Coming up with truly effective solutions to complex, challenging problems requires short-circuiting that habitual tendency to jump to conclusions and fall in love with the first idea you think of.

Instead of immediately looking for solutions, you want to start by spending more time immersed in the problem itself. This is the effortful, cold cognition part of the process. The goal here is simply to upload the raw material needed for the next step.

Immersing yourself in the problem might look like:

  • Writing down a clear, comprehensive problem statement, and even drawing a diagram or picture of the problem (if you’re artistically inclined).
  • Asking yourself a lot of questions about the problem itself (rather than jumping right into solution mode). What’s causing it? Why is it a problem? What are you trying to achieve?
  • Jotting down ideas for possible solutions to the problem as they pop up, but then going right back to exploring the problem.

Step 2: Let Go

This is the easy, effortless part. You simply let go. You create the time and space necessary for gestation. For your hot cognition—your unconscious, your intuition, the Muse, whatever you want to call it—to work on the problem without interference.

You don’t force it or apply conscious mental effort. You just do your best to get quiet, listen, and then capture ideas and insights as they come to you.

  • Work on something completely unrelated to the problem at hand.
  • Engage in low-effort, pleasurable activities—practice your guitar, take a walk, get outside and play with your kids.
  • Be ready to write down or record insights and ideas as they come up, and save them for step 3.

Step 3: Analyze and Filter Your Ideas

This step is very similar to step 1. Except rather than using conscious effort to focus on and analyze the problem, you’re analyzing the insights and ideas that your unconscious came up with during that effortless gestation period.

The goal here is to filter out your best ideas, and figure out which ones make the most sense to test in the real world. Just like you created some time and space to immerse yourself in the problem, in this step you’ll create the same conditions to deeply explore your ideas for solutions.

Once you’ve identified one or two ideas that seem to stand out above all the others, you can move on to testing them and gathering feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

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