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Unloading mental debt to make room for creative ideas

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I remember working with a fellow some months ago, we were brainstorming possible creative ideas for a project when he started talking about something that really chimed well.

When he stopped think about what he had just said I told him he should write it all down.

“No,” I recall him saying, ”it’s such a good idea there’s no way I could forget it, I’ll remember it later when we start working.”

The rest of the brainstorm session was pretty pathetic.

My partner was stuck on trying to remember all the good points we touched on (without writing anything down), and I was stuck on how ignorant his understanding of memory was.

While our brains are constantly running through dozens and dozens of different process – from remembering to pickup milk on the way home, regularly processing sounds and sights, and maintaining all of our internal memory – our ability to stay current and focused is very limited.

This is, in part, the result of our consistent need to be alert. It’s good that you can have twelve tabs open in your Internet browser, but the next new thing that pops up is going to detract you from ever going back to the previous tab and still have context for what was in it.

Ah yes, the laws of mental debt.

Mental debt is anything that stacks up as a thought in your brain. It’s not only how many tabs you have open in the browser now, it’s everything you need to process going on around you now, it’s the constant reminders about things you need to do later today or tomorrow, it’s the brainstorming you’re doing on top of everything else.

After a while you’ll reach your mental quota, either old thoughts (remembering to pickup milk on the way home) will have to be forgotten, or new thoughts (a possible idea for a project) will have to be ignored.

If you have enough mental clutter and things to remember, your mental debt isn’t going to allow creativity to exist. There just won’t be any room for it.

So what do you do?

The same thing I suggested my partner in brainstorming do.

Start by writing things down and clearing off your to-do lists


I’ve found that even recording the silliest of ideas can make a world of difference in how I feel and function during the day.

Often I have trouble sleeping at night, it’s the ideal time for new ideas to pop up, you know. I used to just ignore the ideas, trying to ignore them, but that never worked, I would always end up laying awake in bed for three or four hours going over ideas.

You have to remember that the brain works through connections, constantly (even while you’re asleep). So when you start getting to a good idea your brain is going to keep focusing on similar thoughts around it, particularly if you’re stumped with a problem at school or work, or if there’s something important looming in your near future.

These thoughts and mental processes can run, much like a computer program, constantly in the background, in sensory and short-term memory.

As the processes add-up you’ll find it’s incredibly difficult to be creative. Which makes perfect sense, because your mental energy is now being spent on a dozen little tasks rather than being free to focus on creativity.

The simplest solution is to write everything down, no matter how inconsequential it seems.

Once an idea is out of your head and on a paper or in your phone, it’s like your brain suddenly knows it can move on. Voila! You free-up space for new ideas and all of the new stuff that’s constantly bombarding you.

As my favorite productivity expert and creative genius Merlin Mann wrote:

“Once you can reduce the amount of hay in your particular stack, the needles start revealing themselves like shiny little diamonds.”

Even if you’re confident you’ll remember the idea later on (and maybe you will), by holding onto it you’re limiting the amount of new information (and therefore creative ideas) that you can have.

It’s a lose-lose situation if you do forget. So why risk it?

The same goes for to-do items. All of the items on your list of things to-do use up a little bit of energy every time you think about them, and the longer they sit on the list the heavier they weigh.

The solution?

Prioritize, yes, but more than that: when going through your list ask yourself: “Am I confident that this is something I can do in the next two days or in the week?” If the answer is no, or if you have to spend any amount of time thinking it over, throw it off of your list. If it’s important enough, it will come back.

The point is this: clear away your mental debt and you’ll make room for more ideas. Start by writing things down and prioritizing the things that matter most.

Photo by Philip Bitnar.