How Often Do You Sit and Think?

We have a serious issue facing us these days.  We’re distracted.  Constantly.  By hundreds of sources.  Look at the most recent data and research about how our brain actually works and you’ll see that we couldn’t be making our lives more difficult if we tried.  We’ve lost the ability to sit and think. I’ve been on a bit of a mission the past several years.  I wanted to give writing a real shot, so I dedicated myself to building a writing habit.  I write every single morning. Supposedly, this way, when inspiration strikes, it will know where to find me.  It works. I wrote more in 2018 than in all the previous years of my life combined.  I went from zero to 100 blog posts in one year, and I learned a ton from that experience.  I hit my first million words in March of 2021.

One of the biggest things I learned was that idea creation is a separate activity from writing.  I never learned that in any of the creative writing classes I’ve taken, or in any book I’ve read on the subject.  If I sit down and wonder, or think about what I want to write that day, I am sunk.  Enter the traditional writer’s block.  But if I know what I am going to write about, the morning routine goes smoothly and easily.  The difference is, I had taken the time to find things to write about outside of my actual “writing” time. 

How to find ideas

I struggled for that first year to figure out how best to find ideas.  What I found, after a ton of trial and error, was that there were two times ideas came to me.  When I was doing something so mundane that my brain would go off and find something to do, and when I would actively just sit and think.  At first, I preferred the former.  I found my ideas while scooping the cat boxes every morning. I have five cats and between 5 and 6 litter boxes.  It’s about a 20 minute job each morning.  I found that I could harvest three good ideas each morning amidst the cat poop.  A strange phenomenon, to be sure, but it was damn reliable.  But I had to keep myself from thinking about work, otherwise, all my thoughts and ideas would be about the day job, a handy tool when needed, but not what I was after most days.

Unfortunately, that process didn’t travel.  In pre-Coronavirus days (do we get to bring back ‘b.c.’?), I traveled at least every other week, and have for 20 years.  I needed a routine to find ideas that was portable.  Taking a cat with me wasn’t a feasible idea, although I did sit and wonder about it for a while. After a lot more trial and error, I found a simple solution.

I would sit and think in my hotel room, undisturbed, undistracted for 20-30 minutes.  At first, I sat in the crappy office chair in the hotel room, with my feet up on the bed, and just tried to keep my thoughts empty, until something popped up.  This worked even better than cleaning cat boxes!  So I would alternate between litter box ideas and sitting and thinking, depending on where I was. 

Then, in mid 2019, my job started to suck something awful.  The company I worked for wasn’t meeting investor’s (crazy) demands, and we’d had leader after leader come in to “tell us what was wrong.”  The last guy who came in put the pressure on me to solve the problem. I was already stressed more than I had ever been in my life, but I knew that the only way I would get out of it was to sit and think about the problem.  So I used the same process, but this time, focused on an idea, a simple thought – “How do I fix this?” and basically sat and took notes. 

Turn off the distractions

What I quickly realized was that I could come up with a lot of deep ideas in a very little amount of time.  I was able to think clearly and deeply because I would turn off my phone and all distractions and focus for 30-60 minutes at a time.  I started to research what I had bumbled onto and found a treasure trove of work to support what I had seen happen in my life.  Ryan Holiday’s “Stillness is the Key,” Cal Newport’s “Deep Work,” Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of not Giving a F*ck,” Nir Eyal’s “Indistractable,” and the list goes on.  Recently, the Dutch idea of Niksen has come into vogue. There’s clearly something powerful here.

What I had stumbled onto was a current nagging problem in society.  We’re owned by distractions.  Our phones really are the bane of our existence.  If you can’t control how you interact with your phone, you can’t think deeply, and if you can’t think deeply, you aren’t thinking at all, and if you aren’t thinking at all, what are you doing all day long?  Basically nothing at the end of the day.  It’s OK. We’ve all had those days, where you get to the end of the day and look back and realize that you got nothing at all accomplished. But it’s at epidemic levels. I know of a few Gen-Z’ers who can’t remember details, and they claim it’s because they have poor memories. They don’t. They just never focus on what’s at hand. I was young once, so I get it – I used to think my brain was better than the average person’s. Now, I know the habits are even more powerful than raw brain power.

So many distractions daily

Have you ever lost hours scrolling through one of the social media apps? Or reading blog and article after article on the Internet, only to realize you forgot what you were originally doing?  Of course you have.  We all have.  I had to do all of those things to get where I am today, which is back in control.  I had to struggle with my obsession with “needing to know” and the fear of missing out (FOMO).  What I finally found out was, I didn’t need to know, and my fear of missing out was a fear of being made to look dumb.  I’m not dumb.  I might actually be above average some days.  But, this addiction to distraction isn’t completely our fault.  All of these things are being designed to get our attention. Take a look at Nir Eyal’s first book, “Hooked” where he talks about building habit-forming products.

Get back in control

Now, I have my phone set to where it doesn’t notify me, except when someone important texts or calls me, and even those, I can turn off quickly when I need to focus.  My daily routine isn’t during cat box duty anymore, it’s when I sit at my office desk and think for 30 minutes. That’s it, only 30 minutes per day.  Granted, for work, I will do the same thing at intervals to get harder work done, but the creative side of me gets 30 distraction-free minutes every day.  Think of it like this – it’s only 1/48th of your day spent thinking.  And if you are spending your time thinking, you can work things out for yourself.  We have a lot of deep, complicated issues floating around right now, and we have a media industry that would prefer you just do what they say, and not think about it.

Advertising relies on you not thinking.  Your phone – all those apps – are using psychological triggers to get you to keep checking.  If you haven’t actively solved this problem in your life, you aren’t going to achieve any goals, because you will be too distracted to make any real progress.  Your phone is in control of you. 

It really is that simple

At this stage, it’s simple – just sit and think for 30 minutes without any distractions.  See what happens.  Take notes.  That’s important.  You have about 5 seconds when you have a good thought to write it down before it’s gone.  Trust me on this. You will not remember a great idea later. Take advantage of that, write down your thoughts, and move on.  Then, after 30 minutes, take a look at what you did and compare that to your non-thinking life.  You’re going to love the outcome. 

What have you got to lose?  Those cat pictures and videos won’t be going anywhere.

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Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

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