You are faced with a tough decision to make about a complex real estate transaction. Should you purchase the property, or give it a miss? To get the best answer should you:
A. Go with your gut instinct.
B. Take the time to carefully consider all angles, discuss it with your friends, and weigh the pros and cons.
C. Sleep on it.
This question was the example used in the February edition of the Harvard Business Review‘s list of Breakthrough Ideas for 2007.
And the answer is:
C. Sleep on it.
The breakthrough idea for 2007 is that our much valued and vaunted conscious mind is really just a wind-up toy on top of a super computer – our unconscious mind. It turns out that there is a real limit to the analytic powers of our conscious mind. The result is that when we try to analyze complex problems the longer we try to think it through, the more likely we are to take into account random and unimportant bits of information and stray farther and farther from the best answer.
While this is the breakthrough idea for 2007, one of the definitive books on the subject was actually published in 2002 – Strangers to Ourselves, Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious by Timothy D. Wilson.
I remember first learning in practice about how the unconscious mind can be put to work when I was an undergraduate at McGill. At essay time, I would read a pile of books, but when I sat down at the computer to write I would find that I wasn’t ready. The ideas wouldn’t come, but doing more research wasn’t the answer. Instead I found that putting the essay on my mental backburner and heading out to the pool hall with some friends did the trick. After some time off, and a sleep, the next morning I was ready to write. And the ideas and arguments were all there and ready to be typed out.
I’m sure you have experienced this yourself in numerous ways. Being able to take a complex issue, send it to the powerful unconscious mind to do the heavy lifting while you take some time out for fun and relaxation, and pick up the answer later in the day or the next morning has got to be one of the great advantages of our human minds.
One Managing Partner was known to take her thorniest issues with her on the Grouse Grind. Two hours later, and at the top of the mountain, she would have her answer.
So why don’t you try an experiment? Next time you have something complex you are struggling to figure out, take a moment to consciously place it on the mental back burner and then take the night off. The next morning find out if you have your answer.
Sleep your way to success!