lifehacks mental exercises

Harnessing Wayward Ideas: Setup for MPH #13

My experiences putting Mind Performance Hack #1 into action await a later post, as I am planning to work with each hack for a suitable period of time before drawing conclusions as to its effectiveness or utility. Incidentally, I received a very nice note from Ron Hale-Evans, the primary author of Mind Performance Hacks. Hi, Ron! I hope that this series does not disappoint.

Hack #13, “Catch Your Ideas“, is the first hack of the Information Processing section of the book. Like a fair number of the hacks, it is by an author other than Ron Hale-Evans, in this case, Lion Kimbro. Lion is the author of a curious screed entitled How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think, a text that does a rather good job delivering what it promises. I scanned through it a few years back and found some definitely interesting bits, but Kimbro says it best himself:

If you do the things described in this book, you will be IMMOBILIZED for the duration of your commitment.The immobilization will come on gradually, but steadily. In the end, you will be incapable of going somewhere without your cache of notes, and will always want a pen and paper w/ you . . . You will not only be immobilized in the arena of action, but you will also be immobilized in the arena of thought. This appears to be contradictory, but it’s not really. When you are writing down your thoughts, you are making them clear to yourself, but when you revise your thoughts, it requires a lot of work- you have to update old ideas to point to new ideas. This discourages a lot of new thinking. There is also a “structural integrity” to your old thoughts that will resist change. You may actively not-think certain things, because it would demand a lot of note keeping work.

Kimbro also describes the positive aspects of his method, but I am far too familiar with (and prone to) system paralysis, the syndrome where some system one is using begins to eat up ever-larger portions of one’s time and life. When I first started keeping journals I was laboriously detailed, attempting to capture every minutia of thought and memory. Such compulsive devotion is only sustainable for limited periods of time.

Hack #13 could be considered HtMaCMoETYT-light, and as such is much more practical than the full system as part of a balanced, mentally healthy lifestyle. It proposes a “catch”, a system to capture and store all those cool ideas that flit through one’s head while one is engaged in hum-drum quotidiana.

It suggests using loose-leaf, ruled 8.5″ x 11″ paper divided into three columns, specifying a broad subject, a “hint” or keyphrase, and the idea itself. One is to always carry such a sheet around and, right after having an interesting thought, one is to capture it in just enough detail so that one can recall it later. These capture sheets are processed regularly, and the ideas copied onto other sheets of paper for each subject and filed. A system for numbering and referencing the ideas is mentioned as well; this seems to be part of Kimbro’s larger system, but its utility as part of this catch system is not immediately apparent to me.

My current system is somewhat related, if not quite as formal. My note-taking apparatus consists of a carefully organized and binder-clipped pack of index cards (a.k.a. a Hipster PDA) and an unruled Moleskine notebook. If I am engaged in an activity where I don’t want anything bulky in my pockets (like taking a lunchtime walk), I’ll stick one or two folded index cards in my pocket and scribble down any ideas that I don’t want to lose.

My Current Catch Idea-Flow

In theory, the scribbles are transferred either to the Hipster (if they are practical actions or goals) or to the Moleskine (if they are interesting ideas that I want to preserve for future contemplation). In practice, though, the scribble-cards often don’t get transcribed in a timely fashion and begin to clutter up my binder clip. The notes in the Moleskine are not organized beyond their chronological capture-dates. Reviewing them can be very interesting, but it’s difficult to assess them in any coherent fashion.

I’ll be modifying this hack as I put it into practice. For the first week I’ll continue to use my current system for capture. Rather than the Moleskine, though, I’ll transfer the notes to larger sheets of paper for each subject (unruled, as I have a prejudice against sloppily-printed blue lines cramping my style).

For the second week, I’ll shift to carrying full sheets of paper around with me (I might even suppress my aesthetics and use ruled, if I have some in the closet) instead of index cards, and compare the experience. For both weeks, I’ll be focusing on paying attention to my ideas as they occur and making notes about them as close to occurrence as possible. I’ve noticed that ideas come in clusters: once I’ve written down one, several more are likely to occur to me in fairly short order.

This hack is strictly paper-oriented: the issues around using computers for idea capture and storage will have to be left as fodder for a later post.

lifehacks mental exercises zenoli

Don't Forget Your Lunch: Setup for MPH #1

Chapter 1 of Mind Performance Hacks is devoted to techniques for improving your memory, a topic that has fascinated me since I first discovered Yates’s The Art of Memory. It combines a simple, traditional memory system (rhyming pegwords) with an application (remembering a list of things that you take with you when you leave the house on your daily perambulations).

This may seem a bit silly, but I’m occasionally absent-minded enough to pack my lunch and leave it on the counter or forget to grab my work ID badge on the way out the door.

I used to have several pairs of excellent cargo pants that served as a sort of combination reminder system and carry-all (wallet in the left-front zippered hip pocket, badge in the right leg pocket, and so on). Despite functioning most satisfactorily as a handless (if geekish) murse, sadly, this system didn’t help with my lunch as it wouldn’t fit in a pocket.

Over time, I’ve tried to engineer things to minimize the chances of something important being left behind: a box near the door holds my keys, wallet, and such, and M—— recently constructed a recharging station where our cell phones and my GPS live. Even so, something occasionally does get left behind.

MPH #1 suggests the use of a simple memory system, one that is often mentioned in books on improving one’s memory. This is a good choice on Ron’s part, as it is an easily accessible introduction to the principles of practical mnemotechnics. The system associates a rhyming word (the ‘peg’, upon which memory images can be hung) with each number from one to ten: one is ‘gun’, two is ‘shoe’, and so on. The list in MPH differs slightly from the list that I learned, but the specific words are unimportant, as long as they’re consistent.

When I first learned the system, back in college, I tried using the pegwords as a short-term ‘scratchpad’—a way to remember a grocery list, for example. After some initial enthusiasm, I fell away from using the system. One of the goals of MPH is to build the hacks into your life and brain, much as a useful utility like Quicksilver can permanently transform the way you interact with your computer. The only way to achieve this is through repetiton and continuous use.

Here’s my initial list of things that I need to bring with me every morning and their pegged associations (numbers 8 and 9 not pictured):

Quotidian Paraphernalia

  • One is ‘gun’: keys. I picture myself firing a gun that shoots keys. The keys bury themselves in the wood of the back door of my house.
  • Two is ‘shoe’: wallet. I imagine myself holding one of my shoes. Instead of a tongue, it has plastic sleeves holding the cards from my wallet. I pass the shoe over the proximity reader at the university library, and it beeps.
  • Three is ‘tree’: cell phone. I picture one of those ludicrous cell phone towers half-heartedly disguised with short, pine-like branches and not looking at all like a real tree. My cell phone dangles from one of the branches as if it has been lynched, strung up by its headset. This image reminds me that I need to bring both my cell phone and the headset.
  • Four is ‘door’: work ID. I picture the screen door of my house as a giant ID badge, swinging slightly in the breeze and banging againts the door frame.
  • Five is ‘hive’: GPS. This image is of a traditional beehive, with hundreds of bees buzzing around it. Each bee carries a tiny Garmin GPS and flies around in looping patterns to communicate her path to her hive-mates.
  • Six is ‘sticks’: Note-taking apparatus, which is currently a Moleskine notebook and Hipster PDA. I picture a cone of sticks, laid for a fire. The Moleskine lies in the middle and index cards are woven into the sticks.
  • Seven is ‘heaven’: sunglasses. A simple, cartoonish image of St. Peter at the gates of heaven wearing a cool set of shades.
  • Eight is ‘gate’: my bag. I have a rolly bag with a telescoping handle to transport my laptop and books about with minimal stress on my back. I imagine the handle as a wrought-iron gate. It rises up from the bag, clicks into place, and swings open.
  • Nine is ‘wine’: lunch. I picture Stephen Fry as Jeeves handing me a packed picnic hamper and a bottle of wine. He frowns disapprovingly at the thermos mug that I am holding, and I have to set it down to take the hamper.

This is sufficient for my initial list I think, and I’ll use this as a mental checklist as I leave the house each morning over the next week or two. I’ll post my experiences and conclusions about this hack at that time.


History and Commuting

I spend about eight hours a week commuting, between work and school. Many people drive more than that, but I’ll certainly say that this is more than enough for me. Listening to the radio is not a good solution for me . . . the news is both shallow and rage-provoking, while music stations provide little control and incessant commercials.

Audiobooks (and to a lesser extent, podcasts) have been a great boon over the last few years. My local library system has an extensive selection of unabridged books on tape, and I’ve dipped deeply into their selection.

First words of advice: don’t go for the abridged versions. I once made the mistake of listening to one of these travesties for a book I knew quite well: it was butchery. The resulting text lacked any depth or subtlety . . . not only paragraphs, but also portions of sentences were removed!

I’ve had the best luck with non-fiction, particularly history. It’s easy to engage with the narrative for a half-hour or an hour, and it sets a thoughtful tone for the day. It’s great not to dread traffic jams . . . no matter how bad the congestion becomes, the drive remains a mental oasis in a sometimes stressful day.


Caffeine Management Strategies

While growning up and through the years immediately after college, I suffered from headaches – not migraine-level, but still painful and debilitating. Finally, I began to identify the pattern: the headaches typically started from 36-48 hours after the last time I had consumed caffeine.

Once identified, the pattern became painfully clear: as long as I ingested caffeine evey 24 hours, headaches were almost eliminated . . . until I decided to go off caffeine after several years of steady caffeine consumption. The result was nearly a week of horrible, piercing headaches. I would continue to repeat that pattern several times over the next decade, because I simply didn’t want to give up the pleasure of coffee.

Recently, though, I’ve found a better path. I won’t claim that this will work for everyone, but it has been quite successful for me.

I noticed that if I had a cup or two of coffee on the weekend, I would not have a headache. I’d often exploit this on long road trips: one day of caffeine was not enough for addiction. With some experimentation over the past year, I’ve found that if only consume caffeine every three to four days, I can avoid nearly all of the undesirable side-effects.