Sleep on It

You need your rest—and so does your brain. No one knows why.

But Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, made a personal discovery worth noting. He found that he could rack his brain for months on a problem—and finally solve it. Then he discovered that he could get away with racking his brain for a much shorter initial period—then stop thinking about it—and, after an incubation period, return to find that his subconscious mind had solved the problem in the same total time. After this realization, Russell's work output and creativity took a big leap, and he continued to benefit from his technique into his nineties.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to take advantage of Bertrand Russell's approach. Your problem doesn't have to be on set theory or epistemology—it could be a homework problem from school, a home-decorating conundrum, an organizational challenge from the office.

The important thing is that, first, it must be a problem that really matters to you. You must have the desire—the ganas—that Mr. Escalante demanded from his students. Next, you should learn as much about the problem as you can. You should be intimately familiar with the issues (the term paper topic, the wall-covering choices, and the personnel resources) even though you don't know the answer. It helps to have a number of very specific questions about the problem. Are you confused about how you are ever going to solve it?


Confusion is often a necessary part of learning and problem solving. If you are never confused, you probably aren't working on problems that are difficult enough for you.

Finally, the last thing you need is time—especially time to sleep on it. That is why it is important to start on hard problems early, so you have sufficient time for your subconscious mind to work on it.

But what if you didn't get started soon enough? Now what should you do? That big homework assignment is due tomorrow afternoon and you figure you can get to bed early and start on it in the morning. Want the lazy man's crash course? Okay, here it is: Work on the problem tonight. Force yourself to carefully read the assignment and struggle hard to really understand what the problem is and what the answer might entail. Then go to bed.

When you wake up, start on your problem again. You should be amazed how much easier it seems, and in many cases you will know the answer or at least what to do next.

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