Years ago my brother signed up for a program which made the background cycles of the family computer available to the SETI program. Computers have the same amount of processing power whenever they're turned on, but many of the tasks we put them to only use a small percentage of their full computer power. This program would download radio telescope data that needed to be processed and use the computer's spare cycle time to look for signals, turning what would otherwise be processor idle time into work time.
The mind doesn't have the same fixed capacity as a computer, but there is a certain similarity. In addition to whatever I'm paying attention to at the moment, there's always something which is cooking on the back burner. Sometimes it seems to be doing so without a whole lot of attention. I won't be consciously thinking about a problem, but at some moment a solution to a problem will bubble up from the background while I'm engaged in some other task.
I've been thinking about this lately because I'm trying to change what's cooking on the back burner. Although we're still desperately yearning for cool fall weather, the end of the calendar year is starting to seem very soon to me. That's when I hope to start writing and posting the second volume of the novel, and if I'm going to be ready I need to get to where it's novel planning that's simmering all the time.
When I was younger and more desperate to get ahead in my job, it was always work that was simmering behind the scenes. I'd come up with news ways to solve a problem at odd times and eagerly log in to see if they would work. For the last few years it was the novel. Once I finished volume one and went to take a break, I seemed to drift for a bit, and then the last four or five months I latched firmly on to one of my old and recurring hobbies and found myself thinking about that all the time.
It's been relaxing to have that background thought focused on something entirely recreational, but because it's fun, it's proved rather hard to shake. I enjoy working on the novel, and I want to get my planning and outlining done, but sifting the not-quite-conscious portion of my mind away from recreation and back to creative work feels a bit like trying to herd my youthful self back to school in the fall. I can sit down and put in active time on the project, and I've started blocking off little sections here and there in my day to work on revising or planning, but my unconscious mind doesn't yet seem to thinking that I'm serious, and as soon as I put my laptop or kindle away, it bolts off like a kid towards recess.
What I need to figure out, of course, it a way to spread myself over several things. To make writing the constant background theme but still be able to unplug and engage in recreation at times. I think probably the way to do that is to increase the amount of active time that I'm spending on what I want to be my background topic until it somehow takes hold. It has to become a habit, the thing that I naturally turn back to when my mind is otherwise idle. But as I try to get to that point, it's as if I'm pushing harder and harder on a model train, but have not yet managed to make it jump the track and move sideways.