Over the weekend, I re-read Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness. It’s all about happiness (no surprise), but in an aside, Russell explains how he solves difficult intellectual issues.
I think I’ve followed this strategy myself—not because I cleverly realized it was a good strategy but because I was stumped, so put aside a question out of sheer desperation. Here’s his method:
“I have found…that, if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity—the greatest intensity of which I am capable—for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I had discovered this technique, I used to spend the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the sooner for this worry, and the intervening months were wasted, whereas now I can devote them to other pursuits.”
I’ve used this when I’ve faced problems with structure. Structure! As a writer, I’m obsessed with structure. Often I have seemingly insurmountable structural problems, and I’ve found—just as Russell suggests—
that if I think about it very hard, then ignore the problem and work on other things, the answer eventually presents itself.
This approach is a good example of one of my Secrets of Adulthood: “The quickest way to get from A to BE is not to work the hardest.”
How about you? Have you found that by putting aside a difficult problem, you were able to solve it? Even, perhaps, with just one night of “sleeping on it”?
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Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller, The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. Gretchen is also on Facebook and Twitter.
*Photo by @boetter.