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Weekly 3: The power of "ambient thought"


Idea Journal Weekly 3

August 1 · Issue #202 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Sometimes your best ideas come to you when you least expect it—when you’re daydreaming, taking a shower, or going for a walk. This issue explores a few perspectives to help you harness the power of ambient thought.
(~3 min read)

#1. Choose your worries wisely
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.”
#2. Let your mind wander
In an interview on The Knowledge Project podcast, author Robert Greene says that given the way the human brain works, “your best ideas come to you when you’re not thinking about them.”
Reflecting on his own work process, Greene explains that when he’s not writing he chooses to take naps or watch mindless television. Letting his mind wander results in better work: “things are going on in the brain, and then when I am showering or shaving, great ideas come to me.”
For Greene, if you’re constantly doing other things in addition to your work – going out every night, incessantly checking your phone – you’ll likely miss out on the benefits of a wandering mind. 
Your brain won’t have the mental space to unconsciously process ideas.
#3. Go back to kindergarten
Former professional tennis player and sales coach Steve Siebold writes that the “law of indirect effort” is one of the most powerful problem-solving techniques we have. 
As Siebold points out, while average performers search for complex answers and strain for solutions, “champions think for a while and then create a mental distance to take their direct focus off the problem.”
This distance allows them to separate themselves from the details, get out of their own way, and gain a new perspective. Ideas for solutions will often come to them in the middle of the night, while they’re working out, or while doing some other unrelated activity. 
Champions realize that “the secret to tapping their true genius is sometimes hidden in the act of not trying so hard.”
To encourage such indirect effort, Siebold recommends the following three-step exercise: 
1. Write down a pressing problem you’re facing.
2. Ask yourself: Is there a kindergarten answer to this seemingly complex problem?
3. Step away, let your mind revert to ”child-like thinking,” and then write down the first answers that come to you.
Quote of the week
“What does it tell us about the architecture of our psyches that, without our exerting effort or even thinking about it, some voice in our head pipes up to counsel us (and counsel us wisely) on how to do our work and live our lives? 
Clearly some intelligence is at work, independent of our conscious mind and yet in alliance with it, processing our material for us and alongside us. This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing the work; they’re just taking dictation. It’s also why ‘noncreative people’ hate ‘creative people.’ Because they’re jealous. They sense that artists and writers are tapped into some grid of energy and inspiration that they themselves cannot connect with. 
Of course, this is nonsense. We’re all creative. We all have the same psyche. The same everyday miracles are happening in all our heads day by day, minute by minute.”
- Author Steven Pressfield in his book The War of Art
Idea Journal
Idea Journal
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