Remember the movie Limitless? Well, I know how to get NZT. All organic. No side effects. Imagine flinging mind rays across time and space. Maybe find the next prime number or study Roman history from original Latin texts.
In the next 5 hours, you can accomplish anything. Want to know the secret? Just take a flight by yourself.
Yinh and I have always had this feeling of ambition and energy when we fly. Even more so now that we have kids. Flights without them or simply alone have always been havens. I will bring offline articles, a book, and a notebook. It’s a perfect setting to catch up on CRISPR or check in with Satoshi. Give the ol’ attention span a chance to stretch its legs. Roll out its fascia.
Going through my notes, my ‘insight yield’ in seat 27B is way higher than anything getting generated on the sofa at Chez Moontower. Is it the lack of Wi-Fi distractions? The white noise hum? There is more to airplane mode than just a phone setting. Creative ideas are our frontiers of mental growth, so let’s dive in on the conditions and pathways to sparking our:
Performance researcher and coach Brad Stulberg defines a simple ‘Growth Equation’ where:
Growth = Stress + Rest
You need a Goldilocks level of stimuli to induce adaptation. Not too much that you give up and not so little to be unchallenged. This holds for intellectual endeavors as much as it does for deadlifting. In this interview, Stulberg breaks the process into three steps:
- Immersion: doing the work (training, learning)
- Incubation: stepping away (this acts as rest)
- Insight: your shower thought or eureka moment hits you when your focus is elsewhere
Why does insight reveal itself seemingly out of context?
The answer lies in what learning researcher Barbara Oakley calls “diffuse mode thinking”. This is the second mode of thinking which cements the familiar “focused thinking” that you associate with putting on your concentration cap. She explains:
Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights. … Diffuse-mode insights often flow from preliminary thinking that’s been done in the focused mode.
“Diffuse learning activators” are the mental breaks that punctuate focused work. Examples include working out, sports, driving, meditating, showering, listening to music, taking a walk, and of course sleeping. As we learned in last week’s letter, non-rem sleep is like the marble runs in Pixar’s Inside Out, consolidating memories, clearing RAM, and directing storage.
My tips based on experience and this research
If I budget 3 hours a week for a task, I’ll break it down to four 45-minute sessions. I have found that the impact of sleep on self-integrating what I’ve read or a song I’m learning on guitar makes a serial of 4 daily sessions far more productive than a single marathon. Both Oakley and Stulberg’s work supports this observation. Think of it as using a human chain to move buckets of water from a well, rather than a single person to march to and fro. For the same quantity of man-hours, more water is drawn.
2. Reduce frictions
A related consideration, using the above example, is this requires 4x ‘restarts’. It is not mentally costless to pick up where you left off. To mitigate that, be thoughtful about reducing the frictions from starting up again. For example, I keep my guitar in the open where it is easily accessible as opposed to the garage or in a case
3. “Manage your energy, not time”
I have interpreted Stulberg’s advice by categorizing my to-do lists into “low concentration” and “high concentration”. When I sit down to work (and assuming tasks are equaI priority), I choose from the column that fits my energy. There is even research pointing to genetic influences on being a morning person vs a night owl. 23andMe is using their customer data catalog to explore this link.
4. Sleep is the greatest “diffuse-thinking activator”
The importance of sleep continues to surface in the literature. Ignore at your peril. I’m not a model citizen on this either. I often get up in the night to scribble ideas down which feels self-defeating since sleep is a major ingredient into the insight in the first place. Feels like I’m booting $500 worth of passengers from an airplane to save $400 in fuel. Shrug.
5. Your mind and body are one unit
We all have songs that will make you strut when your Air Pods are full bast as you hoof it thru NYC. The web of interactions between walking, thinking, music, and emotions point to some of the most fertile ground for growing new thoughts. The bilateral interaction of physical cadence and pace of thought is especially provocative. Check out this awesome New Yorker article with my highlights (bonus: viewing this link will not count against your free monthly quota).
6. Let go of your guilt
“Most organizations do not promote a culture that allow these [activators] to be integrated into the workday. Go to the gym on your lunch. Sleep at home. Meditate on a break. Essentially do these things while we are not paying you. We ingest this way of thinking, associating the value of getting paid with the value of executing our task list. If something doesn’t directly contribute, it’s not valuable. If it’s not valuable I need to do it in my non-work time or not at all. This is learned behavior from our organizational culture”
For more, I found this interview with Oakley a wide-ranging exploration on many learning-related topics including several contrarian positions. Worthy of a listen considering her course, Learning to Learn, is the “most popular MOOC ever with over 1 million enrolled students.”