One of the best ways to learn and come up with new ideas is to focus intensely on a problem, then let your mind wander. I’ve enjoyed doing this when problem solving and learning, and recently I’ve been thinking about how weird it is to build trust in your unconscious to do the work for you, especially when it comes to technical work.
Letting your mind focus and letting your mind wander
The first recommendation I have for anyone taking a meta look at learning is Barbara Oakley’s Learning How To Learn. I’ve found it to be a tremendous resource for building better study habits and learning skills, and recommending the course in various threads about learning is easily the majority of my comments on Hacker News.
One of my biggest takeaways from the course was the balance between actively focusing and letting your mind wander, or the focused and diffuse modes of thinking. The focused mode is for filling your mind with information, and the diffuse mode is great at processing that information, forming connections between existing concepts, and developing new ideas.
In the course, one of the examples of consciously switching between the two modes to develop new ideas is the nap strategy employed by Salvadore Dali, where after a long period of focused work on a project, he would retire for a brief nap while holding a key in one hand above a plate. As he drifted off, his mind would wander, forming new thoughts. As soon as he entered proper sleep, his grip would relax and the key would fall to the plate, making enough noise to wake him and call him back to his work, the new ideas fresh in his head. Thomas Edison would also reportedly do the same with a ball bearing in his hand instead, harnessing the amorphous diffuse mode to come up with new ideas.
In a recent New Yorker article, The Myth and Magic of Generating New Ideas, Dan Rockmore goes into detail about working as a mathematician and coming up with new insights while jogging or lifting weights after focusing hard on the problem: “it’s just a feeling of being free, of forgetting for a moment that we are bound by gravity and logic and convention, of letting the magic happen.”
Letting the magic happen in practice
I started paying more attention to this balance around the time when I was learning to program, and I’ve been able to use these two modes when learning how to program, learning in an academic environment, and solving problems that come up in my daily work.
Working in software has graciously given me the opportunity to often have no immediate idea how to solve the problem in front of me. There’s a certain kind of cruel balance to the work; if it was exactly the same problem we were solving before, we’d just copy and paste what we did there. It’s usually not the same problem, so it usually needs a new solution.
Sometimes after investigating a problem, thinking through the edge cases, and trying an attempt or two, the right solution isn’t immediately there. Sometimes you look at a problem and something comes to you, while other times, you draw a blank (and occasionally this is where the nagging imposter syndrome thoughts sneak out of their grungy caves). My usual next steps involve writing things down, trying some code, searching for similar problems, rubber-ducking, or asking a coworker.
If none of this works, I’ve found that one of the best ways to move forward with a problem is to get away from the problem. If it’s halfway through the day, going for a walk around the block (importantly, without just going on my phone) or going for a swim will often let me realize something I missed that proves to be the key when I get back to my desk. If it’s close to the end of the day, heading home and letting the problem sit overnight is often enough to unblock me for the next morning. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve realized a key insight on the train home, only 15 minutes of unfocused day dreaming since I was just looking intently at the code.
I’ve found that this has also been very helpful for learning new concepts. Focusing on something new in a lecture or problem set and giving it some time to soak while my mind is floating seems to let the ideas settle better than if I was just reviewing my notes.
My own recipe for striking the balance
- Take some time to focus entirely on the problem
- Take some time to not focus on any problem
This sounds deceivingly simple, but like any advice you read in the “How To” books, the hard part isn’t understanding it’s a good idea. The hard part is actually applying it and seeing if it helps at all.
Ways I’ve been able to let my mind wander
There are a few ways in particular that I’ve found to be especially good at shifting my mind towards the diffuse mode.
- Going for a walk without my phone
- Taking a nap
- Taking a shower
Things I’ve found don’t work
- Going on my phone mindlessly
- Playing video games
- Checking my email
- Refreshing Hacker News, Twitter, Instagram or (insert favorite site)
It’s very easy to fool myself into thinking I’m harnessing this weird power when really I’m just noodling time away. These usually create some middle stage, with my brain distracted but not fully relaxed enough to sink into diffuse thinking. I’m also convinced that half of the reason shower thoughts are a thing is because it’s one of the only times that it’s especially hard to fill the time with a screen. Archimedes wasn’t on Instagram in the bath.
Learning to live with the magic
There’s a weird balance here between the highly logical and analytical skills and work involved in programming and the complete unknown that is the unconscious and how new ideas are generated. There’s something unsatisfying about resorting to a black box of neurons and brain matter that tosses different ideas around in the background without you, like a clothes dryer filled of ideas that’s tumbling while you sleep. When it’s done, you might be missing a sock, but somehow these nebulous thoughts came together into a solution.
This uncertainty is made worse by the fact that you can’t tell how your mind surfaced the idea. How did you come up with this solution? How do you know you’ll come up with a solution next time? The idea that you can trust yourself to come up with another idea in the future is strange.
I’m learning to live with the idea that I can’t force it, but I can guide it. I’m more comfortable with the idea now, and more than anything, I’m just glad it works.