Try these tips to milk your unconsciousness

by | Jul 9, 2012 | Blog | 5 comments

Where do you do your best thinking?

Anywhere but your desk, if you’re like most knowledge workers and leaders. And probably not at work either.

In fact, according to Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Group, surveys show that only about 10% of people say they do their best thinking at work.

Instead, individuals tend to get good ideas while driving, exercising, reading, meditating or talking to others.

That’s because we automatically tap into our unconsciousness to do most of our thinking. It doesn’t require effort on our part, as David Rock explains. Even better, our unconsciousness—which can seem as vast as the Milky Way—makes powerful connections for us.

By contrast, we must exert energy to use our pint-sized pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for “executive functions.” In general terms, these cover planning, problem solving, verbal reasoning, remembering, paying attention, monitoring, initiating and other actions that require information processing.

The pre-frontal cortex tires easily. (If you have doubts, just do some math quickly in your head—without the benefit of a calculator. Add 37 plus 52 less 13 divided by 2. You’ll be one up where we started. You also may be annoyed with me for putting your brain through these paces.)

So why do we (and our bosses) think we can power through the workday relying only on our pre-frontal cortex? It’s especially challenging when we’re dashing from one meeting to the next and juggling many complex issues under tight deadlines. Plus, much of what we’re doing is either new or setting up new work processes and habits for ourselves and others.

This is yet another example of how a major disconnect exists between what science knows and what business does. Offices are not brain-friendly settings.

So even though your work day and environment may not be conducive for you to give your prefrontal cortex frequent rest breaks, you can take steps to milk your unconsciousness. By doing so, you can improve the quality of your thinking.

Before I share the tips, note these two caveats:

a. Each person’s brain is unique so what works for you may vary. Use these tips as stepping stones to experiment.

b. The brain is a complex organ. This information—if you haven’t noticed already—is extremely elementary. The purpose is not to insult your brain, but instead to give you easy-to-use guidelines.

Now, for the steps I learned from David Rock, which I successfully use for myself and with my coaching clients:

Follow them in this order.

 1. Quiet your brain. Start by putting aside all of the electronic gadgets that stimulate you and your brain. You also may want to close your eyes.

 2. Let your mind wander. (And yes, continue to keep your hands and eyes off of your smart phone, laptop, tablet and anything else with a switch.)

 3. Put yourself in a positive state. (You don’t have to go as far as Peter Pan and think of happy thoughts. After all, you’re not trying to fly; instead, you want to improve your thinking. You’ll go farther though if you stay away from the dark side of anything.)

4. Do something else other than work on the issue, problem or dilemma you’re facing. (It’s as if you’re a chef, marinating a piece of meat or vegetables. You need to leave them be for a period of time so they soak up the juices of the marinade and become tender and flavorful.)

Your unconsciousness will go to work, making the connections that the brain loves to do. And you might get some insights as well as ideas.

If you want to speed up the process or you want to deepen your insights, think about your thinking. Ask yourself some questions, such as “What do I feel about this insight?” “How clear is this?” “What can I do next with these insights?”

Or, you can take a nap. When you sleep, your brain quiets down even further. And your brain consolidates, groups and categorizes your memories. Yes, this is the value of “sleeping on it.”

And yet another option if you’re searching for creative ideas, go to a coffee shop or someplace else with background noise that’s different from your usual setting. “….Walking out of one’s comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment may trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas,” report the researchers in the study “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition.”

Now, if you continue to run into impasses or you’re not overcoming them as quickly as you’d like, it’s time to get a coach. (Contact me if you want to explore coaching.)

Meanwhile, let the journey begin! Are you ready to travel the Milky Way of your unconsciousness?


  1. Howard Prager

    Excellent. I’ll bet the more people try this the greater the results and impact can be. We just need to beg off of meetings for a while to start!

  2. Deborah

    Great! I appreciate your practical list of techniques including “not thinking” rather observing thought (think about thinking), such as in mindfulness meditation. It is a helpful reminder to me, especially when on vacation where time is more unstructured and open, or when in the shower (a common place for deep thoughts) or napping. I’m quite enthusiastic about napping, heh, with siestas not being in vogue here in the USA.

    Your post is also timely, Liz, as I’ve been just been reading up on how those, like me, who use the MBTI (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) need to take care to “reattach the limb to the tree” of keeping the Jungian connection to the unconscious when we talk to people about the various levels of personality type development in a lifetime.

    For those of your readers who use the MBTI at the second level of type development, which features the order of preference, we learn about our inferior function, which is the gateway to the unconscious. Tools like the MBTI provide an insight & structure, besides Jungian analysis, to opening the door further to the unconscious, for those who learn how to use them.

    For anyone interested in the five levels of understanding on the MBTI and the gateway to the unconscious through the inferior function, there are also some good pieces on it via Thanks again for your thoughtful post. ~ Deb

  3. Liz Guthridge

    Thank you, Howard and Deb, for your thoughtful comments. Lots to consider. It does seem like the mind is our latest frontier to explore.

  4. Jane Jordan-Meier

    Great ideas LIz. I have had some of my best ideas when meditating. Or on plane when no one can disturb me!

  5. Liz Guthridge

    Jane, your ideas are great too! I also like the quiet of plane time. With more and more planes offering Wi-Fi though, we may lose our oasis for peace, quiet and reflection.


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