Does this sound familiar? You’re in a meeting discussing the future direction of your new company, should you pivot this way or stay the course?
You try and imagine, one future vs. the other, you visualise a timeline of your startup, the ups and downs, the transformations, the new and old products. At the same time you try and visualise the company you want, the bright future, the success, changing the world – but as all this imagery flashes through your mind, something annoying happens. You try really hard, using all your mental effort to squeeze these mental simulations into existence all simultaneously. To make the right choice you need to have a clear comparison between your options, but every time you try and hold all the information in mind, it almost hurts, you almost get there at peak effort, but with each new visualization, another is lost. You just can’t do it, your mind disobeys your orders, it simply won’t hold all the information at once, it won’t or can’t.
I want to let you in on a little secret, some of us can hold more information in mind than others. Yes that’s right, it’s completely unfair. You might know a high capacity individual, someone who seems to stare magically into space, compare all the many many options and come up with a clear new idea – all done virtually in their mind.
Well you heard it here, just like some of us have newer faster computers with more ram, some of use can do more and see more with our minds – YES I KNOW IT’S COMPLETELY UNFAIR.
But there is a way to level the playing field.
I want to let you in on a little secret, a surprisingly simple way to overcome this unfairness. If you are not already doing this, you will be amazed at how much more capacity you can add to you mind (mind extension/ boost brainpower).
Here is the solution: Use physical aids, like a whiteboard, cards or a huge touch screen, anything to get the information down, something visible so you don’t have to hold all the information in your mind. Yes yes, I hear you saying we all take notes or use a white board in meetings, that’s nothing new.
What I telling you goes further. It is a clear and simple strategy to keep your mind free and empty so you can focus your entire mind on coming up with new ideas.
1. Make (physical) visual symbols that clearly show or represent all the elements, ingredients or pieces of your puzzle that are required.
2. The physical visual symbols need to be dynamic, so you can move them around. This is important, if they are not dynamic you will just end up having to use your mind again (and we don’t want this).
3. You need to be able to add and subtract the physical visual symbols on the fly.
Put all the pieces of the puzzle down, dynamically so you can move them around.
You need to be able to play with the geometry here, the relationships, in anyway you want – which thing comes first, which ones are related etc. If you cannot shift these chunks of information around using your symbols, you will fall back into the same trap again. You will start trying to hold them all in your mind, and you’re back to square one, the capacity of your mind will be all used up!
If you start having to imagine other elements, then stop. You are using your mental capacity on the ingredients or content again. You are ‘wasting’ your mind on representation, you want to save your mind for creation.
Stop and make new symbols. Your mind should be only focusing on new ideas.
Using these physical visual objects you have freed up your mind to do the actual important stuff – coming up with the new creative ideas.
Its very simple, you CANNOT do both things at once. You cannot visualise all your options or content and move them around, looking at the big picture and come up a new creative idea. When you attempt this you use up all your brain’s power on creating and holding the elements in mind – it’s a waste (in this situation). The priority is the creative new idea, NOT holding the ingredients in mind.
There is plenty of good science to back all this up:
1. What we can hold in mind is servery limited to only a few things around 3-4 visual items (Baddeley, 2012; Luck et al., 2013), but you can hold more numbers in mind.
2. Holding information in mind like this is called using Working Memory and it’s effortful and can be hard.
3. Each thing we hold in working memory can interfere with other things in working memory (Franconeri et al., 2013).
4. Multitasking is a myth, what we actually do when multitasking is switch back and forth between different tasks. But when we do this we make more errors in each task (Rogers et al., 1995).
John Medina has some great and easy to follow material on this topic in his book Brain Rules.
Specifically for easy to follow info on multitasking checkout the section of Brain Rules on Attention
More generally this idea of extending your mind has been around for a while. Well-known philosophers David Charmers and Andy Clarke have written about it, have a look here.
It is a simple but profound idea, that everything we use to perform actions is in some way an extension of our mind – just like using the visual symbols above.
One of the most common examples of this in recent times is using your cell phone to remember phone numbers for you. Once, not too long ago we used to spend time and effort memorizing phone numbers, just like the example I started out with above, this puts a tax on working memory, while using it to memorize the phone number you cannot use it for other things. Now many of us use a smart phone that effortlessly stores phone numbers alongside photos and the name of each contact individual, so we don’t have to waste our working memory on phone number memorization.
Here is a great Sydney TED talk by Chalmers on the extended mind:
As Chalmers mentions, Google can be thought of as an amazing extension of our mind. Rather than spending hours, days or weeks committing things to memory, we now have information on DEMAND.
Having information on demand at the click of a button has major implications for entrepreneurs, scientists and perhaps most of all to education. I have an upcoming Post on information on DEMAND so stay tunned.
Have an interesting story of freeing your mind? How have you used technology to free your mind so you can focus on new ideas? Please share…
Baddeley, A. (2012). Working Memory: Theories, Models, and Controversies. Annual review of psychology, 63(1), 1–29. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-120710-100422
Franconeri, S. L. et al. (2013). Flexible cognitive resources: competitive content maps for attention and memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(3), 134–141. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2013.01.010
Luck, S. J. et al. (2013). Visual working memory capacity: from psychophysics and neurobiology to individual differences. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 1–10. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2013.06.006
Rogers, R. D. et al. (1995). Costs of a predictible switch between simple cognitive tasks. Journal of experimental psychology General, 124(2), 207