Iron Filings on Your Brain

Much of work-life balance, I think, is about trying to match what you need to get done to what your current energy pattern can handle. It is no use trying to control your energy patterns — the day-to-day wins and losses around whatever is absorbing you at the moment will drive that. But you can be smart about fitting other things into even the deepest energy troughs. Right now, for instance, having been through a couple of brutal weeks at work, I simply don’t have the energy to finish any of the complex drafts I am working on. But I do have enough energy to write about a simple idea. It’s a trick I use to squeeze the last drop of mental energy out of even the lowest energy trough. I call it the ‘Iron Filings on Your Brain’ trick. Ponder this picture of magnetic lines of force rendered visible by a sprinking of iron filings (public domain image):

magnetic lines of force

Tiny particles sprinkled randomly make visible something invisible. Here is the trick this picture will help you understand.

If you are the kind of person who likes to think a lot; the kind who finds it harder to stop thinking and fall asleep than to start thinking, then I will bet a small amount that at any given time, you are probably aware of at least a couple of barely-conscious dissonant themes on your mind. The stuff that people are referring to when they notice your preoccupied expression and ask “what’s on your mind.”

Often you are aware only of a vague dissonance. Ask yourself, in the past, how have such episodes of dissonance been resolved? I am betting you recognize this experience: some random minor stimulus, perhaps a quote or a picture, suddenly makes the whole confused mass of thoughts on your mind come into the foreground, and gel together as a coherent idea. A minor Aha! experience.

So here is the trick. Whenever you are feeling a mass of subterranean dissonance building up in your mind, try this.

What you do is to stare at a bunch of short, fairly random, fairly abstract, but meaningful phrases. Two sources that work very well are sets of quotes and book-titles. Just walk idly through a large bookstore, absorbing the titles, occasionally picking out one and browsing. Quotes work nearly as well — pick a quote Web site and browse. I’ve noticed lately that StumbleUpon can work too.

If you’ve picked the right sorts of things to browse, one of those phrases that flits across your mind will usually “fit” and suddenly you’ll feel a sense of relief as an idea comes together. Your browsing can’t be totally random — you have to trust yourself and go where your instinct draws you. If browsing the business section is draining you and you feel a strange draw towards the cookbook section, go there. Eventually your tired mind will lead you to a key that brings relief.

I think of this as ‘iron filings on the brain.’ The short phrases are the filings. They make visible the invisible undercurrents on your mind. It isn’t quite a complete metaphor, since some phrases will fit better than others, and only one will resolve the dissonance, but the process is like sprinkling iron filings.

Here are some of the phrases/quotes that have triggered such moments for me:

  • “Premature optimization is the root of all evil” — Knuth
  • “The compensation for an early success is the conviction that life is a romantic affair” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • “All models are wrong, some models are useful” — George Box

It is a simple trick, but it works, and it takes no conscious effort or deliberately controlled thinking. Just idle browsing. But it is a productive use of an energy trough. You could even call it one kind of sophisticated thinking. It is the essence of what design-oriented people call ‘High Concept.’

The psychologist Eugene T. Gendlin developed a therapeutic method of introspection based essentially on this idea, called Focusing. You can use the method to figure out why you are depressed, but you don’t have to be in need of therapy to make good use of the technique. It works just as well on any ambiguous problem you are thinking about.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter