Stuck on a Problem? Why You Should Take a Break

UPDATED: May 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: November 23, 2020

Over a century ago, Henri Poincaré, a famous French mathematician, formed the theory of relativity that would only later be mastered by Albert Einstein. 

In 1908, after studying countless arithmetical questions without success, Poincaré wrote: “Disgusted with my failure, I went to spend a few days at the seaside, and thought of something else. One morning, walking on the bluff, the idea came to me, with just the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness and immediate certainty.” 

The mathematician went on to write about several other instances in which he came up with brilliant solutions entirely by chance. In each of these moments, he came to his conclusions while not thinking about the problems. Actually, let me qualify this: He was very much thinking about these problems, just not using his conscious brain to help. 

Einstein reported the same phenomenon as Poincaré. In other words, the two greatest geniuses of modern physics made their most groundbreaking discoveries when they stopped thinking and just let their unconscious brains take over. 

According to another brilliant scientist, Yale psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, the unconscious portion of your brain works on problems using different processes than your conscious brain. 

Unlocking these unconscious processes hinges on taking time to not think about your challenge or problem. In other words, to engage your brain and achieve those “aha” moments, you sometimes need to shut a portion of your brain off. The greatest “aha” moments in our lives occur not when we are working nonstop, but when we stop working.

Think about the biggest challenge you are currently facing. How can you pivot into another job in your industry? How can you find a way to manage your far-flung team while not being in the same location? How can you get your beloved child or spouse to stop feeling depressed? Instead of beating your head against a wall, spending 80 hours a week trying to solve this problem, just stop. Take a few moments from your daily stream of life and let your unconscious mind take over.

The more complex your problem—and I think we can all agree that Einstein and Poincaré were attempting to solve problems much bigger than the ones we face in our daily lives—the greater the need for a positive reality that transcends consciousness. Success on a massive scale, in other words, requires a reality in which our unconscious mind knows a solution is possible even if our conscious mind can’t see one.

The next time you feel your wheels turning, take a break. Walk along the beach. Ride your bike in nature. Sit by a pond and reflect. Chances are the solution or inspiration you’re looking for will come naturally.

Read next: How to Love Your Problems

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by Dominobae/

Shawn Achor is a Harvard-trained researcher and best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Get a daily dose of happy at Shawn's Facebook page.