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Utilising Your Sub-conscious: Less Stress, Higher Quality Output

  • #Tech

3 mins read

by Will Newmarch
Senior Full-stack Developer

Published on Friday 11th March 2016

As developers, we are constantly tasked with providing solutions to complex problems on a daily basis. Whether it’s fixing a bug, coming up with a method for the next story you’re assigned to, or designing architecture for the next big build, our role is to create solutions to problems.

While it’s often more customary to rely solely on our conscious mind when solving these problems, we commonly overlook the power our subconscious can have in giving us a helping hand.

Sleep on it

You’ve probably heard of the phrase ‘sleep on it’. Whether you give it value or not, it’s scientifically proven that if you sleep on a problem, your subconscious brain spends the night working through all the problems you had during the day. If you sleep normally, this is a good eight hours your brain is thinking about whatever problems you needed to solve the previous day.

This is a long time for your brain to be considering something, and as developers it’s in our nature to be as efficient as possible; so why not take advantage of this?

A common mindset I encourage in myself is that when I have a particularly difficult issue to solve, I read it through, do what research around the subject is needed, and then reschedule it to the next day and get on with something else. More often than not, I fire up my laptop the next day and find i have a solution to the previous day’s problem within a minute or so, or at the very least, a new mindset that ends up leading to the solution.

I often employ this method to bugs and stories that are taking too long to come up with a solution to. It saves time and, more importantly, reduces stress caused from taking too long to come up with, or refactor towards, an ‘ideal’ solution. It has become an integral way of doing things in my working week.

Short-term distraction

However, maybe you haven’t got a night to sleep on the problem, and things are a little more urgent. If you’re struggling and want to tap into the power your subconscious can provide, simply work on something more mundane for a couple of hours. This should be enough time to distract your conscious mind from the problem and let your subconscious think it over. By doing this, you may provide yourself with the ‘epiphany’ during your distraction time that you require, or you may sit down to think it through again to find that your understanding of what is involved has improved, providing you with the right path to find your solution.

Mull it over

On the other hand, consider the case that you’re in no rush and, for example, have a big project coming up that requires some unusual or complex architecture. Read the brief thoroughly, do the research that’s relevant to the problem, and then work on something completely different for as long as possible (not too long, you’ll never end up building it). Your subconscious will spend days and nights considering the issues involved and when you eventually get to drawing up the architecture, it will be solid and well thought through.

With these thoughts in mind (sorry), hopefully a more defined understanding of the capabilities of your subconscious will allow your productivity to improve and your stress levels to decrease and you can feel slightly smug in the knowledge that you’re using your brain that bit more efficiently!

To end, here’s a clip from Season 3 Episode 14 of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon tries to get a ‘mundane’ job to allow his subconscious to think through a problem he can’t solve.