You don’t have to work so hard.
So often we get stuck on trying to solve a problem: we work it, think it through again and again, chew our nails over it. But over and over, I keep seeing that it’s really the gap between gathering knowledge and finding a solution that brings us clarity.
I’m writing a book about the transition into motherhood (in all its bloody, crazy glory) from journal entries and thought pieces that I’ve written and collected over two years. When I first set out to put the content together, I thought I had a pretty good story arc to work from.
When I was finished reading through and taking an inventory of all of the raw material, I looked at the spreadsheet I had created. I was disappointed – there were some obvious themes that were sticking out, but I didn’t have a cohesive story just yet. The narrative arc wasn’t yet obvious and didn’t lead to a payoff for the reader.
I made some rearrangements based on timeline and I studied again, thinking through my journey and my future reader’s journey. Something was missing, but I didn’t have the answer.
After a few hours of work, I walked away from it. I put it away, and I didn’t take my frustration seriously. I just let the feelings be there, without making them mean that I shouldn’t write the book, or that the book isn’t going to be good.
I let it sit for a few days, knowing (hoping) that my subconscious brain was working on the solution, even if I wasn’t consciously thinking about it.
In A Technique for Producing Ideas, a classic published in 1940, author James Webb Young shares the idea that after gathering all of the information about a given problem or topic available and studying it, we must step away from it and let the subconscious mind work on the material we’ve gathered. When the time is right, ideas will come to you with a flash of insight and clarity.
Four days later, I was trying to take a nap, hovering in that place between waking and sleeping, when the idea came to me like lightning. The solution was clear and I bolted upright so I could jot it down.
I could have sat there and fumed over the topics and pieces, forcing it to come together. I could have continued thinking about it, chewing on it, actively trying to “figure it out.” But I chose not to – I walked away from it, dealt with my feeling of frustration, and waited for the answer to come. That’s so often the solution, and yet we like to have pat answers to our problems right away.
So, if you’re working on a book (or a problem) and the solution to it isn’t immediately clear, give it time to make itself clear to you. Have patience. Often, it isn’t about forcing the solution, but about taking in enough information and then letting your super-human, amazingly powerful subconscious mind work on it for you.