Solve Problems by Accident

Brains are weird. Have you ever tried solving a problem and failed, only to think of a solution after you had stopped working on it? Or once you came back to the problem after a break? The old “couldn’t see the forest for the trees”. It happened to me often enough to write a blog post about it. Another strange phenomenon is having the best ideas ever while taking a shower or a long(ish) walk.

This phenomenon is commonly known as incubation and it’s one of the four stages of creativity:

  1. Preparation – conscious attention to the problem, learning new things
  2. Incubation – letting it go and taking a break, unconscious processing
  3. Illumination – the “Eureka!” moment, when all the pieces come together
  4. Verification – using your skills and craft to package your idea for others

(Check out this video for more info on creativity. If you’re interested in the science behind incubation, this is a good place to start.)

Motivation: to engineer my environment, habits and routines in a way that maximizes the possibility of having those A-ha! moments regarding issues that occupy the majority of my attention at any given moment.

Following breadcrumbs

I have a basic understanding of how brains work (or at least how they are supposed to work) and I think there should be a way to do this intentionally and consistently. Unfortunately, I haven’t figured it out yet. Not completely. There might not be a way to do it at will. But over the years, I managed to collect hints that seem to point in the right direction.

What to avoid

Paul Graham, co-founder of Y-Combinator, wrote a very eye-opening (and short) post about paying attention to the top idea in your mind. It’s where your thoughts drift when you’re taking a shower or walk. It’s not necessarily the idea you most want to think about.

He argues that the top idea gets all the benefits of incubation, and you can’t directly control which idea that is. This means that it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind, since you’ll make little progress in other areas.

He suggests to try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about. The biggest attention sinks to avoid are money and disputes.

Money issues tend to become top because making money doesn’t happen by accident, you have to put a lot of effort into it. And you can avoid disputes by ignoring “injuries” done to you by others. Turning the other cheek has selfish advantages when you decide that rude things people have done don’t deserve space in your head.

Free writing

From Wikipedia:

“Free writing is a technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic. It produces raw, often unusable material, but helps writers overcome blocks of apathy and self-criticism. […] Some writers use the technique to collect initial thoughts and ideas on a topic, often as a preliminary to formal writing. Free writing is not the same as automatic writing.”

I’ve used free writing before to change perspective, gain clarity and clear my thoughts. The technique itself is outside the scope of this article, but there’s a wealth of information online. I’ll dedicate a separate post to it. If you’re very interested, I recommend a book called Accidental Genius by Mark Levy, where I got my next clue.

Mark mentioned he would write about a certain subject over multiple days, using different techniques to explore his thoughts and get a couple of ideas worthy of further exploration. Then for some reason, he wouldn’t write anything for the next couple of days.

“Then it happens. While you’re in the office listening to an on-hold version of “Eleanor Rigby,” a lightbulb goes on over your head. You grab a pencil stub and a crumpled envelope and in forty seconds write a usable solution—a solution that, by the way, is a total rejection of all the ideas you had previously but needed the fertilizer of those rejected ideas to flower. In practice, that’s the way freewriting works: dirty and effective.”

Boom! The very thing I’m trying to do.

Switching brain modes

In principle, the brain has two major working modes. In her amazing book, A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakley refers to those two modes as focused mode and diffuse mode. When you are focusing intently on solving a problem, using rational, sequential, analytical approaches, you are in focused mode. Diffuse mode is what happens when you relax your attention and let your mind wander. It’s associated with big-picture perspectives.

Imagine your mind is a flashlight. Focused mode is like a tight, long beam that lets you explore smaller places more deeply. Diffused mode is like a wide, short beam that shows you more context, but at a more shallow level.

The best approach to solving problems and learning new things is to alternate between sessions of focused and diffused mode. First start with an intense focused-mode session to load up the problem in your memory. Try different approaches to solving it and look at it from multiple angles, and then take a break to allow diffuse-mode thinking to kick in and put the puzzle pieces in perspective with the whole picture.

You should vary the length of sessions and breaks to see what works well for you. The important thing is to stop focusing on the problem and do something else during your break, but not something that will engage your attention to such a degree that you start using focused mode again, like playing video games or reading complex books.

There’s a phenomenon called the Einstellung effect, where an idea you already have in mind, or your simple initial thought, prevents a better idea or solution from being found. If you get stuck in this way, you should take a step back and do diffused-mode activities like walking, showering, meditation, dancing or exercise, to name a few.

Sleep is the ultimate diffuse mode. Thomas Edison supposedly used naps to boost his problem-solving and creative capabilities. He would take a nap in a lounge chair, holding a ball bearing above a plate on the floor. When he relaxed and started drifting off to sleep, the ball bearing would fall out of his hand and the clatter woke him up. He would then start working on the project again. Salvador Dali used the same technique (calling it “sleeping without sleeping”).

If you’re working or studying in one of the STEM fields, give the book a shot. It will change the way you work and learn. I wish it was available back when I was an undergraduate student. It would have saved me a lot of time and frustration.


In his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams stresses the practice of looking for patterns in life. A lot of those patterns in the book are concerned with the behavior of successful people.

He had a medical problem that he was trying to solve for years with no success, even after going to countless doctors and trying every possible procedure. He noticed that experts sometimes don’t get it right on their first try.

“Dealing with experts is always tricky. Are they honest? Are they competent? How often are they right? My observation and best guess is that experts are right about 98 percent of the time on the easy stuff but only right 50 percent of the time on anything that is unusually complicated, mysterious, or even new.”

He recognized one such instance when he was offered a sketchy solution by one therapist to fix his medical issue. Afterwards he said:

“If your gut feeling (intuition) disagrees with the experts, take that seriously. You might be experiencing some pattern recognition that you can’t yet verbalize.”

This seems somehow related to incubation. When solving a problem, something could definitely be going on in your subconscious, but not specific enough to put in words yet. I was trying to think of an example of this from my own experience, but for some reason I can only remember instances when I decided not to eat certain foods without being sure why. Still, might be worth mentioning.

Train your brain for better performance

In a newsletter in 2014, Steve Pavlina recommended to treat your brain as a separate entity, a supercomputer that you can delegate tasks to. Like a co-creative partnership between your conscious and subconscious mind. Then give your brain a specific problem to chew on:

“You can start by getting your brain’s attention and telling it to stop. When you catch your brain doing something you dislike, I encourage you to actually say aloud:

No, you don’t do that. That’s wrong. Cut that out immediately.

Then quickly instruct your brain on what you want it to do instead:

Drop the circular thinking. We have a problem to solve here, so solve it in a way that satisfies me. Here are the constraints. … Here’s what we know so far about the desired outcome. … Now apply your best efforts to compute an optimal or near-optimal solution. I know you’re brilliant. That’s a given. Put those 100 billion neurons to good use, and devise a solution to this challenge that satisfies my criteria. Go work on that now, and bring it to my conscious attention when you have something worthy of presenting.

You’d be surprised at how well this works.

If your brain is wasting its energy on worry, fear, anger, loneliness, circular thinking, or distraction, perhaps you haven’t given your subconscious mind a problem or task worthy of its status. After all, it’s an amazingly powerful supercomputer. Your brain craves a good challenge. It’s well adapted for creative problem solving.”

I don’t have extensive experience with this but the possibility seems enticing. And when I say enticing, I actually mean a bit insane, but fun.

Connecting the dots

Taking all this into account, we can formulate a basic how-to on accidental problem-solving.

1. Figure out what the top idea in your mind is. If you’re not sure what that is, go take a walk or a shower and see where your thoughts drift to. Don’t try to control them (controlling isn’t drifting).

2. Put yourself in situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about. Barring emergencies, you have a good deal of indirect control over what becomes the top idea in your mind. Avoid thinking about money issues (not easy if you have big financial problems) and disputes.

3. Work on the issue. Use focused and diffuse mode interchangeably. A good foundation of knowledge is necessary for quality unconscious processing, so really put an effort into solving the issue consciously. Immerse yourself in the situation. Explore all angles.

4. Take breaks. It’s important to be motivated about the issue and to expect to come back later and work on it again. It’s crucial to do undemanding tasks during the break. Experiment with shorter and longer breaks. Think about the issue while falling asleep.

5. Activate different parts of your brain. Try (free)writing about the issue, sketching it or talking about it to your friends. If you don’t have friends, talk to a pet or inanimate object. As I’ve said before, some programmers talk to rubber ducks.

That’s it for the realm of science-backed advice and a few untested, but common sense, methods. Now for some weird-ass shit you can try for bonus points.

6. Ask your brain for help. Ask it, as if it was a separate entity, to help you solve the problem. Pose a question, set some parameters and ask it to calculate the solution and bring it to your awareness once it figures it out. Praise it when it succeeds. When it gets it wrong, explain the adjustments you want and send it back to work. This one is totally funky, but I plan to give it a go because it sounds fun and might surprise me.

7. Write down gut feelings. As Scott Adams said, your brain might be recognizing some patterns that you can’t consciously articulate yet. Also, it would be awesome to track these over a longer period of time and see how many you got right. Who knows, with enough data you might actually extract some useful insights.

Try it and see if it helps. This process is my attempt to capture something elusive and make it work reliably. Now it’s time for some field testing. If you have any insights or criticism about what I’ve written, I’d love to hear it. Especially the criticism. 😀

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