What I learned in week 18 2023

Your brain is a super computer. But with a very specific limitation: It can only work on one thing at a time. I’ve known this since my collage days. But I keep discovering what that means in practice.

George Mack introduced me to Thinking Cost.


The idea is deceptively simple: since your brain can only think about one thing at a time, each thought has an opportunity cost.

When you’re thinking about that embarrassing moment in high school you are not thinking about how to move forward on your creative project.

This is why toxic, negative and dramatic people are sucks energy sinks. Because having them in your life drains you of precious thinking time. The time you spend avoiding their drama, or climbing out of their negative hole, is time you didn’t spend thinking about important and exciting things.

Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working; be selective about professions.

Nassim Taleb

This is also why unfinished work, or work where you are not in control of your time, can cause us so much stress. Because we simply can’t let go of work thoughts, and can’t spend our time off thinking about other things.

Later that week Nat Eliason introduced me to thinking about time as split between input and output time.

Input time, output time. Input time is reading books, scrolling social media, watching the news, listening to podcasts, talking to friends and colleagues, or anything else that adds new stuff for your subconscious to process. Output time is creating the space and boredom for those inputs to ferment into something interesting.

Nat Eliason

Nat is approaching the same mental limitation as George, but using a completely different metaphor and comes up with another way of thinking about it:

Find the best ingredients possible to ferment into great ideas, and aggressively prune everything you don’t want your brain to process. Give your brain the boredom and output time it needs to figure out what to do with that information. Don’t keep opening the jar and packing more into it. Finally, be patient with the process. The more you can reduce the amount of information you’re taking in, and the more boredom you can give your brain to work, the better your results will be.

Nat Eliason

Thinking through these two metaphors I’ve come up with these heuristics:

  • Consume information about problems you’re trying to solve. Or art/entertainment that you enjoy.
    Avoid everything else, especially if it’s scary, outrageous, or has a click friendly headline.

  • When thoughts pop up during the day, try to remember to ask yourself the question: is this a valuable thought to be having? If it’s drama, or shame related, shake it off and do something else.

  • Schedule time to be bored. No input. And try to keep your mind away from thinking about drama.

I’ll leave you with this brilliant observation by Nat:

More information is rarely your friend. It’s often a form of distraction and procrastination.

Nat Eliason