Imagination by Distraction

A question once asked of me was whether I use any mental tools when it comes to creative writing.

And the answer to that is yes, I do apply one particular tool—leveraging the subconscious.

Now, this might sound like it’s going the way of mediation, chanting, the lotus position and maybe even voodoo.

But actually, this tool is built into us all. It is a fundamental part of our human minds, core to how the brain functions.

And to leverage it we need do no more than see it for what it is.

What the subconscious mind is particularly good at—perhaps one might even say ‘is its purpose’—is connecting together concepts in new and novel ways to form ideas. It does this without us being consciously aware of the process.

We all know the expression ‘sleep on it’. It means to delay a decision so as to have time to think about it. But there is more to this notion than might immediately meet the eye.

What is actually going is that we are giving our subconscious mind time to work on the problem—to churn away at all the elements involved and make those novel connections that then pop into our heads.

Except it is not so much, or not just, time that is needed. The subconscious also needs the opportunity to do this. A chance to be able to actually work the problem at hand.

And that is, perhaps, why ‘sleep on it’ works—the subconscious mind does not sleep but ‘we’ do.

So, it follows that if we can create the same kind of circumstance in our waking lives then we could give the subconscious the opportunity to really go to work.

Actually, we do this all the time—when we daydream, when our minds wander. And when we do this, so creative ideas bubble to the surface.

We think laterally.

But while we can exploit this phenomenon, it is something else to leverage it.

To leverage is to make use of our subconscious in a manner that is more than the chance creative thought—to deliberately create that state of mind that sets the unconscious free.  

When the cat’s away, the mice they do play.

And we are the cat.

Or, rather, there is part of ourselves that is the cat.

Think of the cat as the sensible part of our mind. That part of us that is the foreground, thinking earnestly, with no time for daydreaming—for there are tasks to perform.

That cat—that sensible part of us—is something akin to a Scrum Master.

For those not familiar with the term, ‘scrum’ is a popular way of running projects, a way of making teams work effectively in a so-called ‘agile’ fashion—and the Scrum Master is the one who makes sure the teams live by the agile principles and follow its practices.

It’s the Scrum Master in our heads that keeps ‘us’ in the foreground of thought—focussed on whatever task is at hand and, if there is no task, finding one, all the while keeping us on the straight and narrow, like having a good accountant or attorney in your head, constantly striving to keep you out of trouble.

So, what we need to do is distract the Scrum Master. To set them on a task of their own so that their eye is, for a while, off the ball, leaving the rest of our mind to wander free.

And this is actually a rather easy to do.

What is required is a task that needs some level of skill, but which is not so complex as to require ‘us’ to be involved. A task that we can delegate to the Scrum Master.

Take, for example, walking.

It requires that one foot be placed in front of the other, in a sequence that is to be repeated.

It requires remaining upright.

It requires avoiding obstacles—such as concrete bollards and other pedestrians.

And all the while we are just along for the ride.

A thirty-minute walk can cook up all sorts of imaginative ideas.

Some key things, though.

In order to delegate to the Scrum Master, there can be no other distractions. Walk without companions, and in an area known to you.

Companions will mean conversation—and that will drag you back into the foreground.

Unfamiliar territory will require navigation—decisions that, again, will summon you forth.

But don’t shy away from the crowded city sidewalks either. Avoiding all those fellow pedestrians and curb stones will keep your Scrum Master super-busy.

The cat will most definitely be away, the mice out to play.

If walking is not an option, then fear not. Other means of distracting your Scrum Master are at hand.

Consider, for example, ironing a shirt.

For those of you still relatively early on in your experience of ‘doing the laundry’, ironing a shirt might seem problematical. Why is the ironing board that shape? What part of the shirt should one start with? How do you get the iron into all the fiddly corners? This will surely require some foreground thinking.

And you would be right. Tasking your Scrum Master with the unfamiliar will simply see you needlessly involved.

The cat is not away. The mice, they cannot play.

But, with practice, we all find that ironing becomes something of a chore that can be performed on autopilot.

Ideal, in fact, for distracting your Scrum Master.

Except—take care.

If, like me, you find yourselves not quite where you would want to be with your laundry backlog, the depth and breadth of the ironing pile of such dimensions as to be somewhat alarming, then delegating to your Scrum Master might, in fact, still be problematical.

The problem is choice.

The Scrum Master must pick an item from the laundry pile in order to proceed with the task at hand—but it’s a choice that doesn’t actually need you. The Scrum Master can choose for themselves.

So while you might end up abuzz with new ideas, thirty minutes of ironing may find you with nothing more than a neatly ironed pile of socks—as about as useful as ironing pyjamas. When it comes to using chores to distract your Scrum Master, you want something to show for the time spent on the task.

Then there are some tasks that are not to be recommended.

Consider the operation of vehicles and heavy machinery.

While to many of you the idea of your Scrum Master at the wheel of an automobile might sound terrifying—think again.

Those who commute long distances in a car on a regular basis will often remark on how they don’t always remember the entire journey—that some days they arrive home without remembering the last leg.

That’s because the familiarity of the route has let them slip into autopilot mode.

Their Scrum Master was at the controls.

But while we might reap the benefits of such serendipitous circumstances when they do occur, we most definitely should not conspire to elicit them. To do so would be reckless. Better that the cat is not away.