In his essay The Top Idea in Your Mind
, entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham writes that “it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.”
This kind of “ambient thought” will be familiar to anyone who’s worked on hard problems: you try to figure something out, fail, and then suddenly see the answer later while doing something else.
Based on his experience, Graham believes that most people have just one top in their mind at any given time: “That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely.” That top idea will then receive all the benefits of ambient thought.
As Graham points out, this means “it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.”
The problem is that we can’t directly control where our thoughts drift. If you’re controlling your thoughts, they’re not drifting.
But you can control them indirectly by controlling what situations you let yourself into: “be careful what you let become critical to you.” The trick is to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are also the ones you want to think about.
Graham acknowledges that you’ll never have complete control – an emergency can push other thoughts out. But barring emergencies, you may have more indirect control than you imagine.
To figure out what the top idea in your mind is, Graham suggests taking a shower.
What topic do your thoughts keep returning to?
“If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.”