I’ve got a tale to tell you, one that starts in an unlikely place: my shower. Picture me, totally stumped by a business problem that felt like a Rubik’s Cube on steroids. Turned it every which way, but no solution in sight. Frustrated, I walked away and headed for a shower. And boom! Mid-lather, my “aha moment” hit me like a ton of bricks. But why?

That’s the power of your unconscious mind, my friends, paired with a little-known psychological phenomenon: cognitive irritation. Your brain, when it encounters a tough challenge, does some of its best work behind the scenes. It’s like a chef simmering a stew. Toss in a problem, let it simmer, and let your brain cook up a delicious solution.

You might wonder, “Cognitive what now?” Stick with me. Cognitive irritation isn’t some wild pseudoscience; it’s a proven mechanism that makes your grey matter stretch its metaphorical legs. Essentially, when you’ve got a complex issue, something that really gets under your skin, your brain takes that irritation and runs with it—usually without your conscious mind even realizing it. So by the end of this chat, you’ll know how to irritate your brain in the best way possible.

Now let’s dig into this. We’re going to cover everything from the science behind this cognitive magic trick to how you can harness it to be more creative, innovative, and just plain effective in your professional life. Whether you’re a full-blown artist trying to break through a creative block or an aspiring entrepreneur grappling with scaling issues, you’ll want to sit down and soak this up.

The Science of Cognitive Irritation

Alright, friends, let’s get nerdy and talk about the science behind cognitive irritation. Imagine your brain as an “irritated oyster.” Strange comparison? Stick with me. When a grain of sand gets into an oyster, it irritates the mollusk, but what does the oyster do? It doesn’t kick it out; instead, it coats the grain with layers of nacre, eventually creating a pearl. Likewise, when your brain encounters a challenging problem, it doesn’t just toss it aside. It marinates it, stews it, and can eventually turn it into a pearl of wisdom, a brilliant solution you may have never consciously thought of.

But what’s actually happening in that noggin of yours? On a biological level, your brain kicks into high gear when confronted with a challenge. Areas like the prefrontal cortex, associated with decision-making and problem-solving, become more active. Moreover, the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine can be triggered, which plays a big role in motivation and reward-seeking behavior. This biological jazz helps you become more focused and tuned-in. Your mind is preparing itself for a bout of problem-solving, the same way a runner stretches before a marathon.

When we move this discussion into the realm of creativity and innovation, the science gets even cooler. Studies show that creative thinking often activates both hemispheres of the brain. Yes, contrary to popular belief, it’s not just the right hemisphere’s job! This whole-brain activation makes it easier for you to connect disparate ideas and synthesize something new. In essence, cognitive irritation functions as a catalyst that facilitates this cross-talk between different areas of your brain.

What does this mean for you, aspiring Picasso or Elon Musk? Simply put, if you understand how to leverage this biological cocktail, you can make leaps in creativity and problem-solving that you never thought possible. This isn’t about waiting for a lightning bolt of inspiration; this is about creating the perfect storm conditions for your brain to do what it’s designed to do: solve problems in creative ways.

And let me tell you, this is not just something for so-called “creative types.” You see, creativity isn’t a trait; it’s a process, a method, a tool in your arsenal that you can hone and develop. Whether you’re working on an advertising campaign, developing an app, or figuring out how to reduce carbon emissions, you’re drawing from the same well of creativity that an artist does when they stare at a blank canvas.

Bottom line: When you give your brain a challenging problem, you’re not just pushing it to work harder. You’re actually pushing it to work smarter. And that, my friends, is the real secret sauce behind the cognitive irritation phenomenon.

Articulating the Problem

So, you’re revved up about using your brain like an “irritated oyster,” but how do you even start? My friends, it begins with articulating the problem. You’ve got to set up the perfect storm for your cerebral thunderstorm. You can’t just toss any old problem into your mental hopper and expect brilliance to pop out the other end.

Now listen, being vague is your worst enemy here. You can’t just think, “I want to be successful,” or “I wish I could paint something cool.” That’s like throwing a handful of darts in the air and hoping one lands on the bullseye while you’re blindfolded and spinning. Not gonna happen, champ. Instead, you need a clear, vivid, concise problem statement.

Let’s use an example. Say you’re a young entrepreneur, and you’re struggling to get user engagement for your new app. Don’t just tell yourself, “I need more users.” Instead, make it specific. “How can I increase user engagement on the home screen of my app by 20% within the next 30 days?” Now that’s a problem statement. That’s a grain of sand that your brain can start to coat with layers of nacre.

You see, when the problem is clearly defined, your brain can immediately get to work. It can pinpoint what resources it needs, what past experiences might be relevant, and where the critical pain points might be. You’re handing your brain a Rubik’s Cube, not a box of mixed-up Lego bricks.

And let me debunk a massive misconception while we’re at it. A lot of people think that staying broad and open-ended is beneficial because it allows room for creativity. Nah, it doesn’t. That’s called ‘waffling,’ and it’s not your friend. It’s just a waste of energy because your brain doesn’t know what to focus on. It’s like setting a dog loose in a park and then wondering why it hasn’t fetched the stick—you never threw one!

Here’s the deal: articulating the problem isn’t just about knowing what to say; it’s about setting boundaries for your mind to play within. Think of it as a playground. Too much space, and the kids are all over the place, lost and doing who knows what. But put a fence around it, add some jungle gyms and swings, and voila! You’ve got structured chaos, which is what creativity is all about.

In other words, get specific. Create a sandbox for your mind to play in, but make sure the sandbox has walls. Specificity is the key to kickstarting that cognitive irritation that leads to creativity and problem-solving. Once the problem is well-defined, you’re not just ready to dive into solutions, you’re prepped for innovative solutions, the kind that could only come from a mind that knows exactly what it’s wrestling with.

Initial Solutions: Priming the Pump

Alright, you’ve tossed that grain of sand into the oyster, aka your irritated brain, by articulating a killer problem statement. So, what’s next? Time to just sit back and wait for a pearl? Not quite. Let’s talk about priming the pump.

Remember, the first draft of anything is usually garbage, or at best, a raw chunk of uncut gemstone. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. The first round of problem-solving is not really about solving the problem; it’s about firing up your mental engines, getting all the juices flowing. Trust me, you’ve gotta be in the mud before you can find the lotus.

So, how do you do this? Start with brainstorming or sketching out initial ideas. If you’re a designer, maybe draft a few ugly wireframes. If you’re a writer, jot down a couple of paragraphs that you’ll probably erase later. The point isn’t to come up with a perfect—or even good—solution right off the bat. The point is to start the dialogue with yourself. It’s like a pregame ritual; you’re getting the lay of the land, the feel of the game before the real action starts.

Now, let me shoot down another prevailing myth: that your first drafts or attempts should be close to the final solution. Nope, toss that notion right out the window. Those initial attempts are like a musician’s scales, a painter’s rough sketches, or a comedian’s first open-mic night. Sure, they’re part of the process, but they’re not the final act. They’re a way to get the cognitive gears grinding against each other, creating that lovely friction known as cognitive irritation. They get your mind thinking about the problem from different angles, even the wrong ones, because sometimes you’ve got to know what doesn’t work to figure out what does.

And the process itself, ah, that’s where the gold is. That’s what allows you to eventually pull a rabbit out of the hat. But first, you’ve gotta fail, revise, toss things around, and, yes, be willing to throw out some of your darlings. I know it’s heartbreaking to scrap something you thought was genius at 2 a.m., but sometimes, that’s what has to happen.

This first round is like tossing a bunch of ingredients into a blender. It might look a mess, but you’re setting the stage for something tasty—or at least edible. It’s the effort that counts here, the priming of the pump so that when you do step back (and you will, trust me), your unconscious mind has something to work with. You’ve given it a puzzle, some initial clues, and now, it’s ready to solve the heck out of it.

The Power of Stepping Back

Alright, now that you’ve wrestled with that problem, got your hands dirty, and perhaps even messed up a bit—guess what? It’s time to walk away. Yeah, you heard me. Step. The hell. Back. It might sound counterintuitive, but that’s where the magic happens, folks.

You see, after that initial brainstorming—after you’ve filled your head with all sorts of ideas, right, wrong, and just plain bonkers—your unconscious mind starts to take over. You’re giving it the room to breathe, the space to make connections that your conscious mind is too busy or too narrow to make. You’ve loaded the cannon; now let the fuse do its thing.

Let’s look at some luminaries who’ve used this technique, shall we? Einstein was known to take long walks when he hit a mental block. Legend has it that Archimedes discovered the principle of buoyancy not while he was stressing out in a lab, but when he was taking a bath. And don’t get me started on how many authors claim their best ideas struck them far away from the keyboard, in the shower, on a run, or while attempting to meditate.

So, what’s the opposite of stepping back? Grinding away at the problem like there’s no tomorrow, thinking that brute force will push you through. Trust me, that’s a one-way ticket to Burnoutsville. You can’t force a flower to bloom by yanking it out of the ground, can you? Nah, sometimes you’ve got to let nature run its course. The mind is no different.

You’ve heard of “sleeping on it,” right? Well, it’s a cliché for a reason. Ever pulled an all-nighter cramming for an exam or trying to meet a project deadline? How did that turn out? I’ll bet you were staring at the screen or the paper, seeing words and numbers dance like a kaleidoscope. The same concept applies here. Your brain needs the downtime to process, to sift through the mess you’ve made, and extract the nuggets of brilliance.

Now, here’s a bit of contrast for ya. Imagine you’re cooking a complex dish. You’ve got all the ingredients on the counter. You start throwing stuff into the pot. Do you stand there, staring, waiting for it to become something delicious? Hell no! You let it simmer. You give those flavors time to mingle, to get to know each other better. When you come back, voilà! You’ve got something worth serving.

So, go ahead, take that walk, read that book, do something that allows your brain to untangle itself. By stepping back, you’re not abandoning the problem; you’re simply letting your mind work on it in the background, giving it the chance to come up with something genuinely incredible.

Harnessing Your Unconscious Mind

Alright, so you’ve taken the step back. You’ve made space. You’re not hovering over the problem like a helicopter parent at a playground. Good on you! But the magic doesn’t just happen. Let’s delve into what’s actually going on in that noggin of yours.

Your unconscious mind is like the freaking Avengers of your brain, pulling in heroes from different corners of your life experiences, skills, and nuggets of wisdom you didn’t even remember you had. It’s where the chaos of your existence, all your triumphs and missteps, gets remixed into something that can save the day—or at least solve your problem.

You see, your conscious mind is analytical. It works linearly, processing only a handful of facts at a time. That’s useful for everyday tasks but lousy for innovation. The unconscious mind, however, is holistic. It sees the big picture. It processes way more information, makes associations that your conscious mind wouldn’t, and often comes up with answers that are out-of-the-box.

We all have a unique set of experiences and creative connections. The songs we’ve heard, the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen, the stupid jokes we remember—they’re all stored somewhere in our heads. Your unconscious digs through this treasure trove to come up with something new, mixing and matching concepts, merging ideas, doing all the cross-pollination your focused mind doesn’t have time to do. Think of it as the DJ at a club, spinning records you forgot you loved but that get everyone on the dance floor moving.

And it’s in this unconscious mental “stew,” if you will, that innovation brews. Ideas blend, flavors mingle, and what comes out is something you couldn’t have concocted through sheer force of will. You can’t control this process, but you can facilitate it by creating the right conditions: stepping back, taking time off, not forcing the issue.

Don’t believe me? Try reciting the alphabet backwards when you’re stressed. Tough, right? Now try doing it when you’re relaxed. Easier? That’s your unconscious mind at work. Under relaxed conditions, it pulls out these random skills with ease. It’s the same reason why you often get your best ideas when you’re doing something totally unrelated. You’re relaxed, unfocused, and that gives your unconscious the room it needs to do its thing.

To get those cogs turning, you need to trust the process. Trust that stepping back won’t make you lose ground but will set you up for a running start. Trust that your brain, when given the right conditions, will spit out solutions that are far from ordinary. And trust that these solutions will be uniquely yours, informed by your life, your experiences, and your individual creativity.

How to Properly Implement This Technique

Alright, you’ve gotten the scoop on how your unconscious mind is this untapped reservoir of genius. Now, how the heck do you go about setting the stage for cognitive irritation and those sweet, sweet “aha” moments?

First off, environment matters. Imagine trying to sleep in the middle of a rave. Not gonna happen, right? The same goes for creating the ideal conditions for cognitive irritation. Your workspace should be a sanctuary for focused work and deliberate procrastination—yeah, you heard me right. There’s a time for grinding and a time for stepping back. Both are crucial. So, set up a spot where you can knuckle down, but also make it easy to shift gears and let your mind wander. That’s where the magic happens.

Now, let’s talk routine. In a world hooked on instant gratification, we often expect immediate results. But brilliance doesn’t work on a stopwatch. The trick here is to build a routine that includes periods of deep focus and intervals where you consciously step back. These aren’t wasted moments; they’re part of the process. Like marinating meat before you grill it, these intervals infuse your problem-solving with flavor and complexity.

So, you might start your day by diving into the issue at hand. Give it a good couple of hours. Then walk away. Go for a run, take your dog for a walk, play some video games, or whatever floats your boat. Just break from the problem. Your unconscious mind will continue to process in the background while you’re doing other stuff. It’s like having a second you that’s working overtime, but in a chill way.

And, oh boy, don’t underestimate the power of capturing your insights when they hit you. Keep a notebook, use a voice memo app on your phone, scribble on a napkin if you have to. These “aha moments” are fleeting. They’re like rare Pokémon; you need to catch ‘em all. So, when inspiration strikes, be ready to jot it down. Don’t trust your memory; it’s not as reliable as you think, especially when you’re juggling a hundred things like a pro multitasker.

Let’s clear something up: this isn’t about taking it easy or slacking off. This is strategic laziness, a disciplined approach to problem-solving that leverages the power of your unconscious mind. This isn’t the time to kick up your feet and forget about your responsibilities. Instead, this is about optimizing how you work, getting more bang for your buck, and coming up with solutions that aren’t just effective but effing brilliant.

So there you have it, your action plan. Create the environment, set up the routine, capture the insights, and trust the freaking process. You’re not just solving problems here; you’re pioneering a smarter way to work.

Debunking Myths and Misconceptions

Listen up, because we’ve got some serious myth-busting to do. Some of you might be rolling your eyes, thinking you’ve heard it all before, or worse, doubting this entire process. Let’s obliterate those misconceptions right now.

First on the chopping block: “I’m just not a creative person.” Stop right there. You’re human, aren’t you? Then you’ve got the creative chops. Creativity isn’t this mystical trait reserved for artists, writers, or people who wear berets unironically. It’s a cognitive ability we all possess, like language or problem-solving. By adopting the right strategies and giving your unconscious mind room to breathe, you tap into your natural ingenuity. You might not paint the next Mona Lisa, but you could dream up the next big thing in your field.

Second myth that’s gotta go: “Inspiration is for amateurs.” Oh, please. Tell that to the many luminaries who had their lightbulb moments during downtime. Newton and the falling apple, Archimedes in the bath—these weren’t amateurs waiting for a muse to descend from the heavens. They were pros who understood that inspiration could strike at the most random times. They set the stage for it. The myth that professionals don’t need inspiration is just that—a myth, and a dangerous one. It sets unrealistic expectations about the creative process and stifles potential breakthroughs.

Finally, here’s one that’s rampant in our 24/7 grind culture: “I don’t have time for a break!” Do you also not have time to be brilliant? Because that’s what you’re saying. This isn’t about wasting time; it’s about investing it wisely. You’re not a robot programmed to churn out solutions on a conveyor belt. Your brain is more like a garden. It needs time to let ideas germinate, sprout, and eventually bloom into something spectacular. So, yes, you do have time for a break. In fact, you can’t afford not to take one.

Now, I get it. You’re ambitious, hungry for success, and you’ve got no time for BS. But let me make it crystal clear: these myths and misconceptions aren’t just roadblocks; they’re friggin’ landmines on your path to unleashing your full creative potential. By holding onto these outdated notions, you’re willingly throwing a wrench into your own gears.

Trust science. Trust the process. Trust yourself. Kick these myths to the curb, and you’ll find that not only do you become more effective at solving problems, but you’ll also start enjoying the process a heck of a lot more. And who knows? You might just stumble upon your own genius in the most unexpected of places.


Okay, friends, here we are, rounding the final lap. You’ve dived deep into the murky, yet fascinating waters of the unconscious mind, cognitive irritation, and creative problem-solving. So, what’s the takeaway here? The big reveal? The “Holy Grail,” if you will?

Well, the essence of it is this: Your brain is wired to be an innovative powerhouse. You’ve got this inbuilt feature that, when deployed correctly, could make you the Steve Jobs or the Elon Musk in your field. Heck, scratch that. It could make you the first “YOU” in your field.

Seriously, consider this a call to arms. This isn’t just some fluffy, feel-good pep talk. It’s based on science, it’s based on experiences, and it’s a tried-and-true strategy for turning your cognitive gears like a pro. I want you to give this method a whirl. Try it; you’ve got absolutely zilch to lose. Well, maybe you risk losing your status as an ‘average Joe’ or ‘plain Jane’ in your industry. That doesn’t sound too shabby, does it?

So, don’t be afraid to shake up your routine. Plant that grain of sand in your brain-oyster and let it irritate the heck out of you until you’ve got a freaking pearl. When you frame the problem, don’t dilly-dally. Be concise, vivid, and uncompromising. Don’t half-ass the initial round of solutions. Dive in, slog through it, but remember, this is just priming the pump. And then, for the love of all that’s holy, STEP BACK. Walk away and let your brain marinate in its own genius juice.

About the Author: Geoffrey Byers
Geoffrey is one of the world's foremost Designers. He is also a Serial Entrepreneur, Author, Speaker, and Mad Scientist. Hypothesis-Driven experimentation is his love language.