“I love my mind. It keeps me entertained all day long!” That was the great Canadian designer, Bruce Mau, in a private conversation some 40 years ago. Today, Bruce still overflows with the infectious joy of thinking, reminding us that our minds can be a source of free, limitless delight. Whether we’re just going about our days, or sitting down to solve a problem, thinking should be naturally pleasurable, like gardening or preparing a delicious meal. But for many of us this sadly isn’t the case, and the reason is easy to see. You can sum it up in one word, “overwhelm” — the prevailing way of life in the 2020s. How many times in the last week have you heard someone say, “It’s been crazy,” meaning, “There’s too much going on, too much to do, too much to think about”?
So here’s a question. How can we recover the joy of thinking in the age of too-muchness?
THE MOVING BRAIN
It helps to understand a little about our thinking machine, the human brain. With some 80 billion neurons and over a trillion synapses, we have an immeasurable capacity for discovery, insight and creativity. Here’s the key: this astonishing device, the most complex object in the known universe, is designed for action. Our intellectual abilities are all rooted in the body’s need to move — toward sustenance and away from threats. Even our most abstract ideas can be traced to this starting point. Look up the origin of any abstract word, and you’ll find a story of physical action. For example, “abstract” comes from the Latin to “drag out”. I believe this is why thinking can give us so much pleasure. It’s another form of movement, and movement is naturally pleasurable.
So what goes wrong? What causes our brain muscles to stiffen and our range of mental motion to diminish? Well, the brain has a bottleneck, called the working memory. This is the part that does our conscious thinking: assessing options, tracking communications, making decisions. The human working memory has a shockingly narrow bandwidth. It can only hold about 4 or 5 items in mind at the same time. That’s why you should never text while you drive, or even talk hands-free. When people say “It’s been crazy” they’re describing an overloaded working memory. The effects can be devastating. Cramming too much into your working memory pushes your nervous system into fight-or-flight mode. You start feeling miserable, and your creative function shuts down. You lose the joy of that unexpected, dazzling new thought.
THE MENTAL FUNNEL
There’s a way out of this that’s so obvious, you’ll wonder why everyone doesn’t use it all the time. To understand the solution, first picture a funnel. Into the top of the funnel, you pour all the ideas and information bombing around inside your head. Out the bottom of the funnel come a few juicy insights, creations or decisions. Simple, right? But sometimes things go awry.
When you’re in overwhelm, two things can mess with your mental funnel. First, you’ll narrow the top. You limit what goes into your thinking — concepts, possibilities, information, viewpoints… That’s because you’re already suffering from working memory overload. You don’t want more. Second, you’ll rush to the output: under pressure, you want to get to a conclusion as fast as possible. As a result, you don’t fully distill the material you’ve got. You never extract those few precious gems.
The solution is a simple process that works for ANY kind of thinking. And it’s fun. Here are some recent examples of people I’ve seen using it: A professional magician designing a new effect… A pastor writing sermons… An entrepreneur resolving an ethical dilemma… A videographer producing YouTube videos… A real estate investor rehabbing a property… So here’s a question as we look at this process together: What’s on your mind?
A NEW FOUR-STEP THINKING PROCESS
STEP 1. Collect ideas and information.
The key to this step is NOT to organize the material as you collect it. If you’re familiar with brainstorming, you’ll recognize this technique. Allow everything in, without judging or sorting it. When you’re at the collection stage—the top of the funnel—you want your mind wide open, with nothing to distract you from just listening to what’s pouring in.
STEP 2. Categorize the input.
Here’s where the magic happens. It’s why the tool I built for this purpose is called Braincat. When you categorize, you have to ask yourself: “What kind of thing is this?” It’s like putting stuff into labeled boxes when you move house. You begin to gain mastery of the material. Even more powerfully, you reduce a mass of detail to a few key headings. Your working memory relaxes! The key is to let the categories emerge from the material: don’t pre-impose them. If you’re thinking about your life, it’s easy to start with the familiar labels: “Relationships, health, work, finance,” etc. But you’ll learn far more if you look at the details of your life and ask of each one: “What’s this a case of?” You’ll end up with fresh categories unique to your life and no one else’s. Much more powerful.
STEP 3. Sequence the categories.
Your brain is hungry for stories. It wants to know what follows what. That’s why Netflix makes billions of dollars. Sequencing the categories switches on your “story brain” and sets priorities, giving you even more mastery over your material.
STEP 4. Name your Big Idea.
In every collection of mental stuff, there’s one key concept waiting to be discovered. Name it, and you have the ultimate distillation — and the ultimate relaxation for your working memory.
Here’s the hidden magic in the method. While it’s clearly a linear process, the effects are far from linear. Once you relax the working memory and gain mastery of your material, your mind is free to move. That’s when you’re open to creative surprises, and the highest pleasures of thinking.
Founder and CEO, Braincat
Jon Ward founded Braincat with a mission to raise the quality of thinking worldwide. He created the Braincat web-based application to help people both expand and condense their ideas with greater ease. Jon has a fifty-year history in branding, marketing, education, and writing. He is a strategic consultant to Calroy Health Sciences, an adjunct consultant to the Sheffield Group, and a founding member of the board of Regenerating Sonora, a 501c3. He recently edited MC24: Bruce Mau’s 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change in your Life and Work, published in July 2020 by Phaidon Press. Jon blogs on thinking at theBraincat.com/blog