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”?