Monday, July 26, 2010

Top Idea

Good morning,

I was trying to get started working this morning, unfocused, as I usually am when I haven't done my evening routine the night before. As I was moving from one thing to another (not all of them minimally productive), I was trying to get something to stick enough that I would get absorbed and focus my attention on it. But with no one thing grabbing my attention, I just seem to drift. As soon as I start to actually work on one thing, I get sidetracked!

Don't get me wrong … I have gotten some things done today. I paid some bills and decluttered some. But I have not worked as well as I would if I were focused today. And then I stumbled on this blog post from It discusses an essay by Paul Graham about the "Top Idea in your Mind." Interesting stuff – it suggests that the one or two things you spend the most energy on, that occupy most of your "thought space", are the things that will continue to get most of your unconscious energy.

Everyone who's worked on difficult problems is probably familiar with the phenomenon of working hard to figure something out, failing, and then suddenly seeing the answer a bit later while doing something else. There's a kind of thinking you do without trying to. I'm increasingly convinced this type of thinking is not merely helpful in solving hard problems, but necessary. The tricky part is, you can only control it indirectly.

So how do you control these thoughts? Especially if it's indirect?

You can't directly control where your thoughts drift. … 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 think about.

So here's a thought: instead of letting my thoughts control my actions, I should let my actions control my thoughts.

I can do this! For today, I'm going to figure out my "top thoughts" and also my "top priorities", and focus on making these the same. Graham suggests you can find out what your "top thoughts" are by taking a shower. For me, computer games work pretty well for that.

My top thoughts right now:

  • The dishes in the sink, from yesterday. (this is one of the hazards of working from home.)
  • Monday's Weekly Home Blessing

My top priorities right now:

  • Getting my netbook setup and ready for a meeting this afternoon
  • Finalizing a document for a client.
  • Call the bank

How will I merge these today?

First, the "out of sight, out of mind" doesn't seem to be working for my top priorities: I can't see the kitchen or my messy house, but they are nagging at me. So I will tackle that for the next 30 minutes, first.

Then, I will work on setting up my netbook, since I have that meeting at 12:30. If I can really focus on it, it won't be so bad.

Finally, I will work on that client document with what time I have left before the meeting. By not working on it, it goes to the back of my head, and I need it to be one of my "top thoughts" now, at least until it's done.