Most HBR readers can relate to a central dilemma of knowledge work today: We’re using rules for how we work in a factory in a time when most of our work product requires deep thinking.

A study of 6,000 people conducted by the NeuroLeadership Group in collaboration with a large healthcare firm asked respondents questions about where, when, and how people did their best thinking. Only 10 percent said it happened at work. At the NeuroLeadership Institute, we’ve been looking at ways to bring more of that deep thinking into the workplace. More specifically, we’ve been conducting research into what brain science shows us about how leaders think, develop, and perform, and recently we’ve been studying the role of the unconscious mind.

We’ve identified three particularly promising techniques, backed up by research, than can help you think more deeply:

Distracting Yourself

Carnegie Mellon neuroscientist David Creswell can shed some light on this topic. In his recent research, Creswell explores what happens in the brain when people tackle problems that are too big for the conscious mind to solve.

The decision paradigm Creswell set up involved choosing an imaginary car to purchase based on multiple wants and needs. Each car was described by 12 attributes (a leather interior, for instance, or poor gas mileage). Each group of participants was presented with four options, one of which has twice as many positive as negative attributes. Test subjects had to sift through the choices; those selecting the “good” car were defined as making better decisions.

One group had to make a choice immediately. These people didn’t do very well at optimizing their decision. A second group had time to try to consciously solve the problem. Their choices weren’t much better. A third group were told the problem, then given a distracter task to do first — something that lightly held their conscious attention but allowed their non-conscious to do more work. This group did significantly better than either of the other groups at selecting the optimum car for their overall needs.

To put it plainly, people who were distracted did better on a complex problem-solving task than people who put in conscious effort. That’s because stepping away from a problem and then coming back to it gives you a fresh perspective. The surprising part is how fast this effect kicked in — the third group only had two minutes of distraction time for their non-conscious to kick in. This wasn’t the “sleep on it” effect, or about quieting the mind. It was something much more accessible to all of us every day, in many small ways.

The Four-Hour Work Flow

With his team, Saku Tuominen, founder and creative director at the Idealist Group in Finland, interviewed and followed 1,500 workers at Finnish and global firms to study how people feel and respond to issues in the workplace. Tuominen’s findings are easy to understand — 40 percent of those surveyed said their inboxes are out of control, 60 percent noted that they attend too many meetings, and 70 percent don’t plan their weeks in advance. Overall, employees said they lacked a sense of meaning, control, and achievement in the workplace. Sound familiar?

Based on the study and the insights of Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, Tuominen recommends new approaches to changing our work processes that all tap into our unconscious:

  • Think about one question/idea that needs insight and keep this thought in your subconscious mind.
  • Clear your conscious mind by using this two-step system: move your thought(s) from your mind to a list and then clear your list when you have a short break (if your meeting is canceled, for instance, or your flight is delayed).
  • Plan your week and month by listing three priorities you would like to accomplish.
  • Make certain you have at least four consecutive, uninterrupted hours a day dedicated to the three priorities you identified.

This last point is key. Tuominen deduced that if you can schedule four hours with continuous flow and concentration, you could accomplish a lot and improve the quality of your thinking. As Tuominen aptly states, “you can’t manage people if you can’t manage yourself.”

Understanding the “Stage”

Tuominen and Creswell know that our conscious thought is a finite resource and thus, it needs to be carefully managed. In my book, Your Brain at Work, I use the stage theater as a metaphor to explain how our consciousness works, with thoughts entering or exiting the stage all the time.

A stage has severe limitations: audience members clamor to jump on stage all the time (we are easily distracted and self-inhibition requires effort); actors can only play one part at a time (that means no multi-tasking); and no more than three or four actors can be on the stage at any one time (that’s when we feel overwhelmed).

Once we understand that these difficulties are simply limitations inherent in the way our brains are wired, it’s easier to devise strategies to compensate for them. That’s why Creswell suggests a short distractor task to help refocus your mind and Tuominen recommends a four-hour block of time to focus on a few priorities. I would add two more strategies to getting things done: scheduling the most attention-rich tasks when you have a fresh and alert mind or grouping ideas into chunks whenever you have too much information.

Tuominen and Creswell along with other experts will be presenting their research at our upcoming NeuroLeadership Summit beginning October 15. We’ll be posting some relevant links during the conference, so please visit the site to learn more. You can view live streaming of the conference between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. US EST on October 15, 16, and 17. Streaming is free during the summit and available for purchase afterward. Viewers can also join the conversation on twitter with the hashtag #2012NLS.