Unconscious Thought Theory

I like to think of myself as a pretty rational and empirical thinker. I try to understand points where my thoughts will be influenced by bias and my immediate reactions to situations. At these points, I try (not always successfully) to pause to be more reflective and considerate. I generally believe that striving for rationality and more evidence backed opinions is a good thing, but there is research which suggests that this strategy can lead to overthinking things and might involve parts of the brain which are not well suited for some decisions.

 

In Deep Work, author Cal Newport writes about Unconscious Thought Theory and research by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis (I have no pronunciation help here). Research from Dijksterhuis shows that our unconscious brains are good at handling situations with complex, ambiguous information and no clear path forward. Newport describes it by writing, “if you need to do a math calculation, only your conscious mind is able to follow the precise arithmetic rules needed for correctness. On the other hand, for decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple vague, perhaps even conflicting constraints, your unconscious mind is well suited to tackle the issue.”

 

The reason Newport brings this into his book Deep Work is because in addition to strict focus work, he also advocates for time away from work. “your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited,” Newport explains, “If you’re careful about your schedule … you should hit your daily deep work capacity during your workday.”

 

The implication is that we should step away from our work to give our conscious minds a break when we max out on our deep work capacity. Some tasks are not well suited for the hyper-analytic conscious mind, and some of these tasks can be worked through by the unconscious mind at a time when the brain doesn’t have to marshal all resources for deep analytical thinking. By stepping away from work, closing out of our work email, and engaging with other life hobbies and our families, we can allow our unconscious brain to sort through the challenging ambiguities of the problems that had previously stymied our work. Unconscious Thought Theory suggests that our unconscious brain can work on these problems if given space, but continuing to check work emails after hours or logging back in here and there to check on our work prevents the unconscious brain from having the space it needs to do the background sorting that makes it a valuable tool.

 

In the end, it is turning off our rational brain for a little while, allowing ourselves to engage with something or focus on something that doesn’t require such heightened focus, and knowing when to stop our deep work that helps us perform at our best. The answer is not to continuously chug through all the analytic work we can force onto our brain in a day, but to maximize the time we can spend in deep work, and turn ourselves off when we have hit our cognitive limit.

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