What Do You Think About in the Shower

I began a recent conversation with, “I was thinking about this earlier today in the shower.”  You may think that’s too much information to share at work, but I believe that the time we use to think in the shower is critical to our productivity and creativity.  Paul Graham goes further to say “it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.”

I have certainly wrestled day after day with issues, becoming disheartened over time. It takes different ways of thinking at different times to push through the fog. Hard problems don’t lend themselves to easy analysis.  And yet, one day you’ll find yourself walking, daydreaming, or — in this most recent case — in the shower, and the path becomes clear.

When I am most productive, I find that the issues that are top of mind are the fundamental ones to my job or life. When I’m flailing, my top of mind issues are unimportant or, even worse, distractions. I have found that by being aware that my mind is wandering off into unproductive territory, there are some things I can do to pull it back into focus on the thing that matters.

Graham, founder of the venture capital firm Y Combinator, notes the challenge:

“I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind. . . .You can’t directly control where your thoughts drift. If you’re controlling them, they’re not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about.” (emphasis added)

Disputes and slights are one of the primary areas that Graham identifies as dangerous territory for your thoughts.

“Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I’ve found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn’t deserve space in my head. I’m always delighted to find I’ve forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn’t been thinking about them. My wife thinks I’m more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish.”

The Wandering Mind

The Wandering Mind by Michael Corballis

Think about your shower this morning and the idea or ideas rummaging around your brain.  Was it the most important focus for you, a key to getting ahead and accomplishing your goals?  Or, are you giving up valuable real estate in your brain to undeserving distractions?  Are you letting others control your life? Are you letting the wrong things become critical to you?

Think about that the next time you step into the shower.

Have a good week.

More to come…


I Was Trying to Daydream but My Mind Kept Wandering*

The Wandering Mind

The Wandering Mind by Michael Corballis

New Years is the time when many of us make resolutions.  We promise ourselves to focus on losing weight, reading more books and watching less television, being mindful in the present.  One of my personal perennial chestnuts in recent years is to avoid becoming a grumpy old man.

So with all this attention on focus, why was I so excited to find a book on the wandering mind to read over the winter holidays?  Because “It seems we are programmed to alternate between mind-wandering and paying attention, and our minds are designed to wander whether we like it or not.”  That sure rings true in my life experiences.

Are you still with me?

In The Wandering Mind:  What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking, author Michael C. Corballis argues that

“Mind wandering has many constructive and adaptive features – indeed, we probably couldn’t do without it.  It includes mental time travel – the wandering back and forth through time, not only to plan our futures based on past experience, but also to generate a continuous sense of who we are.  Mind-wandering allows us to inhabit the minds of others, increasing empathy and understanding.  Through mind-wandering we invent, tell stories, expand our mental horizons.  Mind-wandering underwrites creativity, whether as a Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, or an Einstein imagining himself travelling on a beam of a light.”

Author Maria Popova has written that there is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom.  There are many ways our minds wander.  As preservationists, we talk about memory – which is a form of mind-wandering.  Corballis, in his book, uses a great deal of recent neurological research to demonstrate that memory – while important to us as humans – is not always what we make of it.  He quotes American poet Marie Howe, who said, “Memory is a poet, not a historian.”  Or as Mark Twain put it in his own inimitable style, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”  The mind-wandering that is memory is more like telling a story, and the story that it tells is as often directed to the future as to the past, according to Corballis.  In other words, creativity.


Wandering (Think Jar Collective)

Wandering (credit: Think Jar Collective)

I’ve always loved the word “wander.”  One of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit, has a book on walking entitled Wanderlust: A History of Walking.  When Claire and I took a cross-country trip to Southern California that took us within 15 miles of the Canadian border, I titled it the Not All Who Wander Are Lost Tour.

So if you are still reading this, don’t get too worked up when your mind starts to wander, thinking that it is a waste of time.  New Year’s resolutions can be helpful and there are many occasions when we need to focus in order to learn or to finish a job.  But nature also designed us to dream.  In his final chapter, Corballis quotes from psychologist and epistemologist Donald T. Campbell, who described the essence of creativity as “blind variation and selective retention.” Wandering is the essence of blind variation, and as humans we have the ability to stumble across something new and important and – hopefully – recognize it for what it is.

Enjoy your times of focus and wandering in this new year, and have a good week.

More to come…


*The title is a quote from comedian Steven Wright.