We’ve all had moments when we’ve been working hard on a problem, trying to solve it, but failing to do so. We try to focus more and we stay at the office for an extra hour, but no, still nothing. Eventually we decide to give it a rest and head home. And then, on the bus, while not really even thinking about the whole problem anymore, a solutions pops up. And it’s a magnificent solution!

Why does this happen? Why couldn’t we figure it out when we were really trying, but could when we weren’t? In those moments we’ve managed to harness the power of the “nonconscious” mind, which has a far greater ability to process information than our conscious mind.

Harnessing the nonconscious can make a tremendous improvement in our problem solving skills. However, the key to becoming a better problem solver seems a little counter-intuitive: To solve a problem, we need to stop thinking about it.

In the image above you can see what’s going on in your head while your still at the office, trying to solve the problem. You’re feeling stressed out, you’re tired, you’re thinking really hard. All that is creating noise in your brain and the insights can’t get through. They’re weak compared to the noise. It’s like when you can’t hear your phone ringing in a loud and busy shopping center.

When we get on the bus and stop thinking so hard, we relax and the noise level drops. Suddenly we have an insight. This is illustrated in the image below.

The lowered noise level allows insights to get through. This is why great ideas pop into our heads at seemingly random times. This is why, in order to solve a complex problem, we need to stop thinking about it. We need to allow our nonconscious mind to solve it for us.

However, we can’t control or force insights. Trying to do so will create noise and actually hinder insights. What we can do is increase their likelihood. So, next time you’re really stuck on a problem, remember this blog post. Instead of trying to focus more, take a walk. Get some fresh air. Think about something else. Give the insights a chance to get through. Or, to put it simply: sleep on it.

This post is based on David Rock’s article “The ‘Aha’ Moment” (PDF). If you want to delve deeper, I strongly recommend reading the article. I’ve also blogged about other stuff I’ve learned from David Rock and Results Coaching Systems: