I was listening to Olivia Colman interviewing Sharon Horgan on Chain Reaction on Radio 4 last week. They were talking about work pressures and Olivia said ‘When I get stressed, I say to my husband “there’s too much to do, I can’t cope.” So I’ll list everything I have to do and he’ll say “you could do that in an hour”.’
Laugh out loud funny right?
Sound like you? It sounded like me.
I think we all recognise that we waste energy worrying about things that we should be doing but aren’t. It would be a far better use of energy to just get on and do them.
But that approach can also be counterproductive when we are facing complex, ambiguous challenges. Making quick decisions and focusing on action can lead to us choosing the ‘wrong’ option.
Take career transition, for example. I have worked with a lot of people since 2007 whose careers have been disrupted by the financial crisis. A phrase I often share with them is ‘don’t just do something, sit there.’ This is because for big decisions, the ones that affect the rest of our lives, it is often really helpful to tap into the subconscious. And you can’t hurry the subconscious. If you try to, you run the risk of neutralising it.
I think there are two key reasons for this:
Firstly, your subconscious needs space and time to work. Taking careers as an example; your thinking about what you could do is governed by what you currently do. This is restricted by several boundaries. The organisation you work in; the role you fulfil; the level you work at and the department you work in. Your subconscious can’t explore your hopes and dreams of what you could do because your conscious mind is focused on the pressing demands of doing your job, hour by hour, week by week, month by month, year by year. Take these boundaries away through redundancy, handing in your notice or, as happened to me, getting the sack, and it frees up your thinking.
But it isn’t instant. Your subconscious needs time to explore this new world of freedom. And it appears you can’t force it; if you do, your subconscious will default to working within the old, established boundaries.
The second factor is related to ‘gut feeling’ or intuition. These non-linear, decision making processes get a bad press in the West. We don’t trust things that can’t be described logically.
So what is going on when something emerges from your subconscious that is so obviously the ‘right answer’? Something that takes you by surprise? ’The last thing I would have thought of’ but deep down it feels right.
One theory is that some decisions are just too complex to be solved by SWOT analysis or listing pros and cons. These conscious activities are too simplistic to account for all the variables. When we are faced with these decisions, our subconscious comes to our aid – subconsciously. It draws on our whole life experience in an integrated, creative way to offer us the way forward. This is why things pop into your head at the most unexpected times and why we are sometimes woken up by a brilliant, breakthrough idea.
So what can you do consciously to make the most of the awesome capacity our brains have? Well, perhaps the most important action is to stop doing things that block the expression of this hidden potential. Probably the most critical thing you can do is stop making decisions about issues that you are struggling to resolve. If you switch off the decision making process you will switch on the process of exploration. If there is no pressing deadline, trust yourself to live with uncertainty for a while. This will send an invitation to your subconscious to do the deep thinking that is often the only way to reach a complete, lasting resolution.
Mindmapping is also a great technique for facilitating this process – have a look for books by Tony Buzan if you haven’t come across this process before. You can also try asking yourself the ‘big question’ last thing before you go to sleep, which is another way of inviting your brain to work things out subconsciously.
So, yes, definitely get on and do those urgent, pressing jobs as Olivia’s husband suggests. That will feel so much better than just continuing to worry about them. And it is a far more productive use of your energy.
But if there are things on your to do list that are big and complex, take them off your to do list and put them on your to think list. You will be amazed by the imaginative, thoughtful gifts your subconscious will give you. And all free of conscious effort.