How to steer your subconscious

You may notice that some of your best ideas come to you in the shower, while driving, or when you’re taking a walk. You may also know that these are likely coming from parts of your brain beyond conscious access and that those parts are constantly at work — you only become aware of it when something interesting bubbles up to your awareness.

What you may not know is that this mechanism can be steered. Depending on your line of work, you may already be meaningfully guiding it. It is no coincidence that when you spend all of your conscious effort thinking about a tough problem, further insight pops into your head at times when you explicitly weren’t thinking about it.

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I propose that explicitly trying to guide your subconscious to focus on things you care about is a worthy task. And I have a simple 3-step system to help facilitate this process:

  • Capture – Whenever you find yourself thinking about something that seems big and deep and you wish you could put your subconscious on the task, start by recording it with a short sentence or two. Keep an easily accessible mechanism handy to capture these recordings. I used to use a small notebook, and now rely on Google Keep notes. Your capture method should satisfy these two criteria:
      1. Make it easy to access and add new things — make this low effort, or you will stop doing it.
      2. Keep this list separate from other lists that may distract you when you look at it (to-do lists, shopping lists, etc).
  • Quick Review – When you have some free time or are in the middle of a monotonous task and notice your mind wandering, glance through your capture list, and acknowledge each item. Beyond reading each note and acknowledging it, you shouldn’t have to put in time to actively ponder. Just refreshing your mind with your capture list will often be enough to prime your subconscious.
  • Cleanup – On a regular schedule (I do it as part of a weekly review), go through the list, and clean it out. Most items you will be able to quickly delete. Some you will want to think about more. For those items, I suggest using some kind of future reminder to review them again: FollowUpThen, a calendar event, or even an Anki card. But either way, I recommend clearing your list completely. If it is something that keeps gnawing at you, you will find the urge to organically re-add it. If you let items pile up and keep rolling over, the mechanism seems to lose its effectiveness

You may find the idea of trying to influence your subconscious mind repugnant or overbearing. I am sympathetic toward this view. However, perhaps this is one of those things where if you don’t choose to exercise some control, then someone or something else will — perhaps to your detriment.

If you do try this mechanism or if have a different one, please let me know!

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