Unstructured Thinking: How to Have More, Better Ideas(?)

Originally appeared on ssntl.com

Not all those who wander are lost.
– J.R.R. Tolkien

When was the last time you had a really good idea?

How frequently do you think of something original?

Do you think of yourself as creative?

In my case, the answers are usually “not recently,” “not frequently,” and “no.”

That (rather depressingly) said, there are some times when I more frequently notice (or remember) having good ideas. Times like:

  • Showering
  • Trying to fall asleep
  • Foam rolling
  • Meditating

What do these have in common?

The brain isn’t being stimulated by an outside source, and it isn’t focused intensely on anything in particular.

This phenomenon may also manifest itself in a negative way. If you’ve ever tried to sleep and noticed your mind bouncing from memory to memory, or you’ve sat to meditate and been deluged by thoughts, you’ve see the flip side.

My working theory is that having ideas and thinking of stuff in general takes a very different kind of mental environment than most people are used to cultivating. It’s a free-flowing, non-directed state of mind. I like the term “unstructured thinking” for this mental state, and I think it can be cultivated by creating a specific set of conditions.

I also think that, especially in our information- and media- saturated lives, our minds do not get enough time to sort, analyze, and store the information they’ve consumed. When presented with a break from consumption and/or focus – falling asleep, meditation, showering – the mind frantically tries to dig through the backlog. What we perceive is a “busy” mind. What we experience may be an inability to get to sleep or difficulty focusing our meditation.

I’ve been experimenting with formal and informal blocks of time set aside for “unstructured thinking.” So far, I find that more time set aside equals more ideas and a quieter, healthier-feeling mind. Different conditions have resulted in more or less activity, but some trends have emerged:

Required conditions for UT:

  • No specific mental goal or focus (not trying to find a specific idea or solve a specific problem)
  • No informational input (not reading, listening to podcasts, looking at a device, etc)

Optional / possibly helpful conditions (I’m not sure about all these all the time):

  • Rote motor pattern being executed with little thought (showering, foam rolling, doodling/sketching, walking in a low-stimulation area)
  • Non-attention-arresting music playing (not “your music” that you normally listen to – something that lightly teases your mind – classical or ambient works for me)
  • Eyes closed

I’ll continue to experiment, and I’m curious to hear others’ experiences with this type of non-directed thought.

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