do not step out
get staged
14/Sep/2005 | 05:17

There's More to Thought Than Just Thinking

The self-help aisle in the bookstore really bothers me. Here, you have rows and rows of best-selling books on how to reorganize your life, how to get things done, how to be a better partner, and perhaps the best subject of all: how to think.

The purpose of this article is not to tell you how to think, but to get you thinking about how you already think. Let's start with a poll. People like polls.

I polled Merv, Rands, Profanity, Pickles, and Hip with the following:

Give three things the mind can be expressed as in an analagous sense; figurative descriptors for how the mind works.

I got the following replies:

Factory, computer, blender, toaster, tofu knife, file cabinet, library, mud pit, weapon, shelter, tree, and mission control.

And the last response, which I think is perfect, provides a segue:

"Ninja magic, because I have no clue how the fuck it works."

Yes, I know the list doesn't add up to fifteen. Not the point. Yet.


Self-help books are inexorably flawed because they attempt to tell you how to think in one way or another. To some people, the brain is a finely tuned implement of thinking. To others, it's a complex assembly line of stages and mechanisms. How to Be a Better Thinker, by Some Guy, Ph.D., is going to try to get you to change how you think completely, when it should really be showing you how you already think and getting you to improve on that.

It's not that we don't know how the brain works—though we really don't—it's that most people don't pay attention to how the brain CAPTURES, TRIAGES, CRUNCHES, and RETURNS information. It "just works", and that's a good thing.

There's no better example of this than a flood.

The Flood

The biggest breakdown of communication in any given company inevitably comes when everyone's screwed. It happens because there's a lot of information out there, but no one has all the information they need. Ever. Instead, you inevitably have this in every other office:

"What's going on with the server behind the firewall? I thought those ports were blocked. Are we okay?"

"I'm not sure. Let me shoot Mr Admin an e-mail."

Of course, the first problem is that three questions got asked of someone who wasn't involved in the problem, and then that person decided he was the new point of contact for the questions. Telephone game.

The flood happens when several people each need to know several things that require you knowing even more things. Think about this for a second. For every question someone asks you, you need to know at least one piece of information, right? One piece of input, one piece of output—minimum. What happens when five people ask you three questions a pop? CAN ANYONE SEE THE MATH PROBLEM HERE?

This is "information resonance", and it's a river: the sheer amount of information dictates that the detrital noise is potentially overwhelming. You're about to get hit with a flood of it, too, because if those guys down the hall are curious as to what's going on, surely your managers and your managers' managers are, too. You need to know how to deal with the incoming deluge.

Yes, I Heard You

Absorbing all of the information in a flood is like trying to intercept a stream from a fire hose. It's hard because, well, that much information can be downright painful, and it's easy because all you really have to do is sit back and let the water hit you in the face. Enough with the H2O analogies.

This is the Capture stage, the first and easiest of the four stages of information processing. It's easy because it requires practically no energy or work on your part. We're talking auto-pilot, here. If you've ever wondered why people can sit in front of the television all day and not get tired, but get run down by half a morning of meetings, this is why. PEOPLE ARE LAZY, and it doesn't require any significant effort to watch information coming in constantly. Meetings are WORK, and WORK IS HARD.

To recap:



On to stage two.

Involuntary Muscle Reactions

The real work in absorbing floods of information—or any amount of information, really—actually comes second. See, it's a two-part operation:

1. Intake data (T.V. time)

2. Assess priority and relevance (What? You want me to do the dishes now?)

The second part is the Triage stage, and it's the stage that makes or breaks your ability to Get Things Done. Screwing up here has the potential to derail any project, assignment, or flood control because tanking Triage will inevitably lead you in the wrong direction. Think of any project you've worked on that went wrong: someone, at some point, misprioritized something important and things suffered because of it. The wrong bugs were sent to the top of the triage list, work started before everyone had a clear direction, or your team got URGENT requests sent to their inboxes every five minutes. This is often seen with extreme cases of micromanagement.

To make matters worse, without direction in the first place, you have no way to prioritize information. See why most people screw this up? They fail Triage because it's easy to fail it. Learning what's important, and how important it is, takes lots of mental practice—and lots of failures.

Eventually, if you work at it enough, it becomes second-nature and can actually be pretty awe-inspiring. You know that geek down the hall everyone calls "The Sponge"? The guy who seems to absorb everything and trucks through pools of information like puddles. His secret is his ability to sift through all of the stuff that comes at him while it's coming at him. He doesn't retain everything, he simply knows what's actually important and how important it is; he knows what you're going to ask him about later, and that stuff gets shifted to the top. If he deems something will never be relevant, it drops off the list entirely.

A good example of Triage is how you handled the list of analogies at the beginning of the article. If your first thought was that I polled five people for three responses and only ended up with thirteen list items, YOU FAILED TRIAGE. THANKS FOR PLAYING. Instead of asking about the missing items, you should have been asking where I was going with the list itself. You did, right? Good.

while (isUnsolved($problem)) { }

This is the part where I talk about how people think, and then at the end, I tell you to disregard it all because everyone thinks differently. Grok? Okay.

(Diversion: Grok? This link is for you, Pickles.)

A diversion, that's kinda like a footnote, right?[1]


Did you read that all the way through to this sentence? Did you click the link and read on? Did you scroll down and read the footnote before continuing?

Some of us are linear thinkers (factory). Others take everything and try to process it all at once (blender). Some of us are procedural, if-then thinkers (tree, computer). Then there's ninja magic again, where you put data in, awesome forces deal with it, and out comes an answer. If only because it invites an intriguing mystery to the function of how we think, I like the ninja magic version.

This is Crunch. It can be a bit of a mess. You might not even subscribe to only one analogy. Or any.

So how do I tell you to think? Of course, the answer is that I don't. Even if I were a mission control thinker and you were a mission control thinker, the arrogance required for me to tell you how to think dwarfs even the amount that I possess. It's a lot. Trust me.

You've CAPTURED, TRIAGED, and CRUNCHED information, and now you have a completed Thought Product. Enter Return. (Laugh, it's funny.) Sometimes, you produce more information to communicate to others, and sometimes you're just preparing another piece of data to crunch. As Merv puts it, "Often there is no return. Some results are intermediary."

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Keep track of your progress. If you find that you're solving things, but not getting anywhere, go back and triage again. You've probably misprioritized something and don't know it. WHAT DO YOU MEAN "IS THIS BUG IMPORTANT?" YES THAT BUG IS IMPORTANT, WEREN'T YOU LISTENING?

Capture is easy, but it's not a free ride. Don't get lazy. If you can't remember everything I say to you 95% of the time, you aren't paying enough attention. Draw pictures in your head if you need to. No one will make fun of you.

Once you give it, you can't take it away. Practice mumbling when it comes time to relay your Thought Product to others. Remember what we said about information resonance, and carefully gauge exactly how much information needs to be fed back into the system. Too little information, and no one knows what's going on; too much information, and people are wasting time sifting through the clutter.

We'll be back after these messages.

[1] Yes, it is a bit like a footnote, but more distracting.


Bah, no HTML? *thwack!*

That's why a lot of today's success literature literally fails... because it is about behavioral modification. It does not necessarily look deeper to determine the thoughts which generate the actions, and then the beliefs (paradigms, values and character issues) which generate the thoughts.

Those are the integrated circuits calling the shots in our minds. The ones from which, all behavior is emergent. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergent_behaviour) And that is why most literature of the last fifty years fails: it discards the character- and paradigm-oriented literature of the preceding two hundred years!.

Stephen Covey's 7 Habits are a good jumping off point... a generalist approach to realizing the flaws in our thinking. I try to go back every three to six months, as it's easy enough to forget the lessons and go back to non-proactive habits, even when you're attempting to alter your paradigm. Worth checking out. There's a reason why Franklin Quest became Franklin Covey. =)

posted by Heptarch on September 14, 2005 at 06:58