Secrets Revealed: A Simple (Lazy?) Way to Solve a Difficult Problem.

Over the weekend, I re-read Bertrand Russell’s  The Conquest of Happiness. It’s all about happiness (no surprise), but in an aside, Russell explains how he solves difficult intellectual issues.

I think I’ve followed this strategy myself–not because I cleverly realized it was a good strategy, but because I was stumped, so put aside a question out of sheer desperation. Here’s his method:

“I have found…that, if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity—the greatest intensity of which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I had discovered this technique, I used to spend the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the sooner for this worry, and the intervening months were wasted, whereas now I can devote them to other pursuits.”

I’ve used this when I’ve faced problems with structure. Structure! As a writer, I’m obsessed with structure. Often I have seemingly insurmountable  structural problems, and I’ve found–just as Russell suggests–that if I think about it very hard, then ignore the problem and work on other things, the answer eventually presents itself.

This approach is a good example of one of my Secrets of Adulthood: “The quickest way to get from A to be is not to work the hardest.”

How about you? Have you found that by putting aside a difficult problem, you were able to solve it? Even, perhaps, with just one night of “sleeping on it”?

  • Anna Jedrzej

    Sometimes, after a little break someone else comes up with the great solution, just like this 🙂 

  • What a great reminder and something I often forget.  Thank you!

  • My husband taught me this trick when we were in college. He called it “sending out the horses.” I think he primarily used it when he couldn’t remember the name of something — rather than driving himself nuts, he’d “send out the horses” inside his mind with the idea that they’d eventually bring back the answer to him.

  • My experience is that NOT thinking about a problem often brings the solution. It’s as if thinking about the problem simply recycles the stale old thoughts whereas NOT thinking about it leaves room for new insights and ideas to appear. I don’t think you can force this to happen, you really do have to let go of your thinking without a hidden agenda.

  • My favorite (for apparently smaller problems) is to go for a nice walk through my neighborhood.  I usually come back feeling refreshed and with a new perspective. 

    Also, I recently watched a documentary on dreams that sighted research where a certain percentage of people who went to sleep consciously asking for help from their dreams with a particular problem were rewarded with an answer in the morning.  I thought that was a fun idea.

  • Kristen

    Coincidentally, I just read about this secret in the book PsychoCybernetics. The author of that book quotes the same passage you did.

    Hearing this twice in one week seems like an incredible coincidence; the universe must really think I should try this out!

  • Great advice! I find that once I stop thinking about a solution, one often comes to me when I least expect it. Once I stop thinking about a problem, all of a sudden when I’m driving or taking a shower, the solution will just pop into my head out of nowhere. The other thing I try is to think about it while I go for a walk or exercise. Something about the combination of thinking and physical exertion helps to bring out a solution!

  • zabette

    I find that some states of mind are not conducive to solving problems, especially when you’re tired, so if you just put it off a little, the answer may pop into your head. And getting lots of sleep is important as not only are we more alert during the day,  but we work out a lot of issues through our dreams. 

  • Michael Crosby

    There is something powerful in your post. How we can relegate something from our conscious to sub-conscious and then continually come up with an answer ….

    Also relates to intuition. Everyone may say it’s a bad idea, you’re a fool to pursue it, etc., but if one is strong in one’s convictions, that is where true strength lies, ultimately trusting one’s self.

  • This is such a good reminder of the power we have within us to resolve questions and summon our creativity. 

    In my life as an energy bodyworker, I often remind people that our ‘fallow’ times may also be ‘gestational’ times because on some deeper level a creative process is occurring that we cannot see but that will eventually be birthed.  We just have to trust in our own gestational process that is like a baby growing unseen in a woman’s womb.

  • Kathy

    In order to make Jello, you have to put it in the refrigerator for a while and walk away from it. I often refer to a down time when I am working on something as “making Jello”. Usually after a period of time has passed, whatever it is I am working on has somehow come together or “congealed”.

    • gretchenrubin

      I love this phrase!

  • I like this one very much and am going to try it immediately (going to bed only 15 minutes past my bedtime!).

  • Grandma Honey

    If I am really wanting answers for a speech I am giving, or a paper I am writing…I will study it once more right before going to sleep. Then my brain will work on it while I am sleeping. By the time I wake up it usually is ready to flow out of me. This works so well that I have come to expect it. 

  • S_ifat

    So true. I’m superised every single time it happens. Every time I feel I will NEVER come up with the answer, and then, few days later I do. So now, after I drive myself crazy with something, I take Scarlett O’hars’s advice and “think about it tomorrow”

  • I call this “letting it marinate.” I often do it with my writing. I draft a piece, then set it aside for a few days. When I get back to it, I have fresh eyes and end up with something I’m proud of. I build this process into planning any writing project, no matter how big or small.

  • Lady MacBeff

    I find this to be very true! However, I sometimes half-think it’s the worrying that leads to the progress at the end of the not-actively-working-on-it phase. Maybe it’s superstition, or seeing it as a sort of bargaining: ‘Dear Problem, I agree to worry about you if you will agree to solve yourself.’ Maybe I’ll try it without the worry phase, as Bertrand Russell did!

  • Suzgagnon

    In David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” (another book that has made me happier) he uses the term “incubate” and to me that means I put away the problem to deal with it later.  Many times when I am ready to deal with it again, it has already been solved.   

  • Yes!  I often encourage myself to go on walks and try not to view the time outside as time ‘not working’ because really this is when my thoughts come together the most.

  • KH

    “What we do not make conscious emerges later as fate.”
    –Carl Jung

    • gretchenrubin

      Oh, how I love reading Carl Jung.

    • Peninith1

      Jung is one of the ‘great masters’ in my life. . . and this is one of his more profound observations–why, in middle or late life some people make a complete and (to others) startling change in their way of living. I also think this is true in the apparently trivial but actually serious variation I try to keep in mind by applying this to eating: what I do not make conscious emerges later as FAT.

  • Yes, I think when we wait out a difficult situation or problem we face we find the solution.

  • Laurie

    I had a high school chemistry professor that called this phenomenon the “pregnant pause.”  It feels empty but an answer is actually growing within that “pause” and then just gives birth spontaneously!  I’m 38 now and still find myself using this technique frequently…

  • I see,  just do it , think little?

  • beth

    Pre-retirement I was a computer programmer.  I sometimes found myself stumped whilst troubleshooting a particularly complicated program.  I would try solve it in a number of ways, going through lines of script searching and searching.  The program seemed to be fine, but we weren’t getting the desired outcome.  I would leave it and work on something else for the rest of the day.  In the middle of the night I would suddenly wake up with that “Eureka” shouting in my head – THAT’S WHERE THE PROBLEM IS.  I could barely wait for the night to pass so I could get to work and check it out – and sure enough – the error was exactly where my sleeping self had “seen” it.  Problem solved in my sleep.

  • Stine Karlsen

    I once solved a calculus problem in my sleep.

  • Traian Mihai Patru