Multitasking is my forte
July 11, 2012 2:05 PM   Subscribe

What things can I do in my head to entertain myself/learn something/pass time quicker?

I have a 200 hour task I need to complete over the next month which is fairly mindless (i.e. I can daydream as much as I like and still get it done) but that doesn't allow me to partake in my usual distractions (reading, music, audiobooks, podcasts). Any form of audio/visual distraction is pretty much out - it all has to be in my head.

What mental exercises can I do to distract myself yet keep my mind busy and maybe learn something at the same time? I'd love to start learning a language but it's pretty hard without being able to listen to tapes, or consult books. Would reciting grammar tables in my head (or something similar but more sensible) help? What are your mind hacks to keep yourself busy and constructive?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (32 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Teach yourself the method of loci.
posted by The Deej at 2:15 PM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Try to re-write or re-edit your favorite movies in your head. You liked Titanic? Gender-swap the leads. Jack is an uptight milquetoast being pressured to marry a rich harridan. Rose is a street-smart, penniless artist. What does this movie look like?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:21 PM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know how musical you are, but when I have, say, had a 45-minute MRI or had to concentrate on some task, I have hummed or thought or la-la-la-ed some Bach. It's perfect because it's mathematical and sequential, but the lines I hum in particular (the cello suites, or a single vocal line in the Mass in B Minor -- as opposed to trying to recreate both hands while playing the piano) are pretty continuous and easy to follow.

Of course, I am a singer and former cellist :P But if you have some songs or pieces of music you know well enough, or even poetry, that would probably work. It feels like a little bit of gamification to me, keeping me rhythmic.

Interestingly, I ended up doing this during testing for ADHD (which I totally have) and measuring its effect. For the first five minutes of clicking when I saw a dot in a box, I could barely concentrate. Finally, I said, "Do you mind if I hum or sing or something?" and the observer said, "Go right ahead." So I started doing a little "Et in terra pax hominibus" and I kid you not, we could tell the exact moment on the graph when I did so because it went from, like, zero concentration to nearly normal.
posted by Madamina at 2:21 PM on July 11, 2012

I mentally sing the Cole Porter Songbook.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:27 PM on July 11, 2012

I try to write an episode of a TV show in my head. Something that I know very well, sually a sitcom or formulaic drama. It's a surprisingly engaging puzzle to figure out the A plot, B plot, C plot of a show.
posted by acidic at 2:39 PM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Practice mental arithmetic, re-learn your times tables. Stuff that is still somewhere in your memory, but old and dusty and needs to be refreshed with practice. Make up random sums in your head, calculate them, and see if you can get faster and faster at it.
posted by Joh at 2:42 PM on July 11, 2012

Yeah, I analyze TV shows in my head--character analysis, recaps, whatever--when I can't do anything else but think all the time. Ditto books, movies, etc.

Perhaps I need a life.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:43 PM on July 11, 2012

Some types of meditation?
Or reciting poetry?
posted by leigh1 at 2:58 PM on July 11, 2012

I once had a job like this. I would use scratch paper or post-it notepads to write things. Outlines of blog posts and stories. Or I'd just dick around making budgets, plans, travel schemes, anything that might benefit from getting thoughts out on a sheet of scrap paper.

If you can't even have access to a scrap of paper and a pen, both of those activities are still fun -- just less useful for later in case you forget a plot point or the best place to transfer trains if you want to visit both Amsterdam and Prague on a eurail pass.

Re language practice: while you can't learn a new language from scratch in your head, you could practice or refresh foreign language knowledge. I like translating sentences in my head, counting to high numbers in a foreign language, or seeing how many foreign words for [NOUN] I can come up with.

See if you can list all 50 states or all the Presidents in order. (If you're American -- what are some international versions of this?)

How many world capitals do you know?

Think about every time you've done X activity in your life. Mentally list every concert you've ever been to, in chronological order, including opening bands/other people on the lineup. Make a mental list of everyone you've slept with, first and last name, in chronological order -- include absurd levels of detail if your list is like 3 people or something. Do it again alphabetically, or in order of the age they were when you first hooked up.

Also, what about classic old-school daydreaming? I'm a history buff, and one of my favorite daydreams is "What Would My Life Be Like In X Historical Setting?" I take the basic details of my life, the stuff that translates to almost any other time and place, and I think of how my life would be different.
posted by Sara C. at 3:10 PM on July 11, 2012

From the OP:
Unfortunately there's no access to writing implements at all. The suggestions so far have been great but I'm really hoping for things I can do that require little/no preparation (I don't know any TV episodes well enough to replay them in my head, nor pieces of music or poems). Similarly, while I'd love to learn all the capitals of the world, it doesn't help me that I don't know them already to practice! I can do things like recite times tables (and I guess I could quickly teach myself quick mental arithmetic algorithms) or count in other languages though. Please keep your ideas coming :)
posted by jessamyn at 3:32 PM on July 11, 2012

My suggestion wasn't to learn all the capitals in the world, but to think through how many you already know. If you're shit at geography and know like two countries, OK then, I guess that won't work. But maybe there's some other area you're good at which has a similar kind of arcane or rote knowledge?

Similar for other General Knowledge type stuff children often have to learn in school (whether that's state capitals for the US, or all the kings of England in chronological order, or whatever people in your country typically have to memorize in school). You often have secret reserves of knowledge that you don't use from day to day. Why not tap into them, or at least figure out their contours?
posted by Sara C. at 3:38 PM on July 11, 2012

what about looking around , and redecorate your place ? (in your mind, of course )
What you would change , to make it the most superwonderful workplace , if you could go as far as you wish ? what would you change, what furniture you'd bring/discard, what view you get from the windows ? do you want windows ? maybe pool and little indoor garden for lunch/coffee breaks ? what colors ? lighting ?
What if some snakes, tigers etc . will live here ? Where ? What should be changed in your workplace ? And how these animals will be used ? will they do your job ? Think in all the details how you'll train them to do what you do, what they will tell you . Take your time.
Or, look around and think what happens if this place become a setting of some story , book, fairy tale , you might make up your own. It might be fully different time, or even planet.
Maybe your place is a space ship. ... well , I guess that's what little children do as soon as they are left alone and without computers . Make up whole story .
Or, look around and guess dimensions of walls, furniture, in inches/feet/meters . Try to calculate volume of everything. Maybe weight of things.
posted by Oli D. at 4:19 PM on July 11, 2012

I like reciting the Fibonacci series when I'm bored. If you don't know what that is, it starts at zero and one. To get the next number, you add the number you're on to the number before it. The first eight numbers in the sequence, then, are zero, one, one, two, three, five, eight, and thirteen.

I quickly lose track, but it makes a fun memory exercise.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:16 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Every night before I went to sleep I used to tell myself the story of my life. I was sorting out the different versions that other people had told me. It was relaxing.

I think a good exercise would be to think of an episode in your life and try to remember every detail of it. Then try to remember more and more details. The room or environment, who was present, what were you or others wearing, what was said...all sorts of details. Well, maybe you wouldn't learn much except to dredge up memories you hadn't thought of in awhile.
posted by goodsearch at 5:21 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

If there is no access to paper, you can write things on your body and cover it up with clothes.
posted by leigh1 at 5:26 PM on July 11, 2012

Try solving some of your problems in your head.
Here is Adam Savage talking about his problem solving methods and mental checklists.
posted by leigh1 at 5:32 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

My solitary confinement pastime is to pick a category (vegetables, cities, beverages) and think of an example for every letter of the alphabet. When you get to the end, start again.

Or, write a fairy tale, or children's picture book story, in your head.
posted by dontjumplarry at 6:02 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Or, find some riddles or brainteaser-type problems online -- "William and Mary were found dead on the floor with broken glass, a puddle of water, and a toy treasure chest beside them, how did they die?", that sort of thing -- and spend the day thinking up possible solutions.
posted by dontjumplarry at 6:05 PM on July 11, 2012

Or brainstorm ideas for new internet startups, viral projects or fuck yeah tumblrs.
posted by dontjumplarry at 6:08 PM on July 11, 2012

It would be easier to know what you're spending those 200 hours doing. When I spend long hours imaging on a fluorescent microscope or analyzing the acquired data, although it requires visual processing and constant judgement calls and physical action, audiobooks are a-ok.

Are there limitations of what physical things that you can have access to?

With the limitation of the understanding of your situation in mind, perhaps you can plot out a novel/movie/tv-show in your head. Imagine going through the roles of different POV characters and developing their backstories.

Are you familiar with game/dungeon-mastering (GM/DMing) tabletop roleplaying games? Maybe work on fleshing out a world in your mind.

Are you allowed/free-to sing? I know that practicing musical instruments improves performance. I'm sure that singers/vocalists also benefit from practice.

There are lots of resistance-based physical exercises that don't require any equipment, and many of them don't require much room (qv burpees.

Thought experiments?
posted by porpoise at 6:15 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Plot out a really intricate mystery novel, or spy novel.
posted by elizeh at 9:14 PM on July 11, 2012

Also, if you cook, inventing recipes and planning a banquet could be interesting.
posted by elizeh at 9:15 PM on July 11, 2012

Design something. Solve every problem involved in every step of bringing this thing from imagination to reality, hone the design into something elegant and robust, then in your spare time, you can order everything you need (you'll have worked it all out), and hit the ground running and make this thing reality.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:15 PM on July 11, 2012

Numbers - go through sequences of numbers. Can be times tables: 7*1is 7, 7*2 is 14, as high as you can go. Or if you're really bored, counting as high as you go until you realise your mind drifted somewhere and you stopped counting 5 minutes ago. Even better if in a foreign language!

Letter and word games. List all items in vicinity that start with A. Recite alphabet in a foreign language. Think of a sentence (song lyric, warning label on something nearby, random thought, whatever), take the middle letter(s) of each word and rearrange them into new words, trying to add only vowels (example "It's raining men": "t", "n", "e". Net, ten, Nate, teen, tine, note, etc).

Prayer/meditation. Run through every one you know, starting with those closest to you, and go through what you love/like about them and the positive wishes you have for their future. Include yourself in this exercise. Think about your goals: your 1, 5, 50 year plan, and how you might achieve them. Focus on each part of your body individually, see how it feels from inside, how it connects to and influences other body parts, how it helps your body be a great body and what it is you like about it. Concentrate on peace when you breathe in and love when you breathe out.

and now you're all in my head!
posted by mosessis at 9:19 PM on July 11, 2012

Fermi problems?
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:53 PM on July 11, 2012

Nine letter word game! Start with a nine letter word (EXERCISES). Take the first and last letters of the word (ES). Now you have to find a new word that contains those letters in that order consecutively (VESTMENTS). Repeat. When you get stumped, cycle one word back and go again.
posted by marginaliana at 6:32 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's not much you can learn in a blank mental and physical landscape. Since you want to learn something, and you don't have access to any physical inputs (books/papers/tapes/sounds) you'll have to do the inputs the night before, and use the day when your brain is free to practice. So, say you want to learn German. Tonight you buy a phrasebook, and study the first chapter. Tomorrow morning while you're drinking your coffee before work, skim over it. All day tomorrow you're practicing... "Guten Tag!" "Guten Tag!" "Mein Name ist Anonymous, und Ihnen?" etc. Over and over. Of course this will help your flow, but your pronunciation can get better with practice even when you're not speaking it out loud. Maybe you'll be practicing rote conversations. Maybe you'll be practicing verb conjugations. Later you'll be making up stupid sentances about the things you see "Der Herr mit dem blauen Hemd ist nicht sehr nett." Or exercises to practice cases of prepositions (Wir gehen ins Kino. Wir sehen einen Film im Kino.) Reciting grammar tables does help, like irregular verb conjugations, or whatever.
You can't do that from scratch if there's nothing in your head to practice on, so it'll take a bit of preparation. What are the chances you could make yourself a cheat sheet to keep in your pocket? Then you can whip it out for 30 seconds between tasks as a reminder to give you ideas of things to practice, to make sure you're practicing correctly, etc.
posted by aimedwander at 6:58 AM on July 12, 2012

I've so had jobs like this.

One of my fave things to do was imagine a conversation with [person from history or literature] where I have to explain [thing that would be completely alien to them] so they can understand it.

You spend your shift mentally trying to explain the Greek elections to Henry the 8th or how the Internet works to Sherlock Holmes, in the process highlighting the gaps in your own knowledge on both ends of the conversation. So then when you go home you end up getting sucked into Wikipedia reading about Syriza or Victorian telegraphy.
posted by the latin mouse at 10:06 AM on July 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

The thing that kept me sane when I had a mindless mail sorting and packing job was always brainstorming for or planning out the next part of my passion project. Granted, I had access to pens and paper so I could write down any sudden strokes of insight, but I think you could still do this entirely in your head.

So yeah, if you are a creative type by any stretch of the imagination come up with a heavily conceptual project and use those 200 hours sorting out what that heavy concept is. For me it was designing the rules for a tabletop game, for you it could be pretty much anything.
posted by cirrostratus at 12:02 PM on July 12, 2012

When I'm trying to go to sleep I design and decorate either a cabin or an apartment. I figure I'm either a frustrated interior designer or architect or a bit of both.
posted by deborah at 11:18 PM on July 12, 2012

Write your autobiography in 200 episodes. Not just where you were and what you did, but reconstructed dialogs and imagined illustrations or photos. Try very hard to remember and describe your motivations and emotions. It will be published a thousand years from now, so you can be as revealing and explicit as you like. If you're in any sort of closet (sexual, political, anything) and plan to stay there for now, this is where you can safely come out, safely confess your true feelings, to the people of 3012. Remember that things will be very different then, so you will have to describe the taste of honey and the hum of bees and the pain of a sting and the bend of a flower when a bee settles on a blossom.
posted by pracowity at 1:42 AM on July 13, 2012

1. Try playing your favorite albums in your head.

"The suggestions so far have been great but I'm really hoping for things I can do that require little/no preparation (I don't know any TV episodes well enough to replay them in my head, nor pieces of music or poems)."

Do you know any songs or albums well enough to play them in your head? Think of your favorite five albums, the ones you listened to over and over as a kid - can you try to play those all the way through in your head?

Also, you might be surprised at what you can do with just a little preparation:

2. Memorize a quick, short poem at night, and recite it to yourself the next day.

You said it's 200 hours over the next month, so I'm just going to guess it's 50 hours a week, say 5 10-hour weekdays a week (wow, that's kind of a lot).

So, on Sunday night, take 20 minutes and try to memorize a short poem or a bit of a book. There are lots of great threads on AskMe about memorization techniques, but just as one suggestion: start with the last 3 words. Say those to yourself five times. Now back up three words. Say those to yourself three times, then say the whole six word phrase to yourself three times. Now add the preceding three words, and keep going until you get to the start of the piece.

Now, when you're doing your 10-hour stint on Monday, you can:

Try to recite the poem to yourself.
Try to run through one of your favorite albums in your head.
Try to recite the poem to yourself again.
Try to run through another of your favorite albums in your head.
Try to recite the poem to yourself yet again.
... and so on.

NOW: on Monday night, learn ANOTHER poem, using the same technique. You now have two poems prepared. So during your 10-hour stint on Tuesday, you can alternate between poem 1, poem 2, your favorite albums, and whatever else you're doing in your head.

And finally:

3. Pick an image - any person, any object - from your past and describe everything about it, down to the last detail.

Lynda Barry's What It Is has this amazing exercise where she asks you to list 10 moms you knew as a kid. Then you pick a mom and describe everything about her. And you do the same thing with cars: list 10 cars you remember from when you were a kid. Then describe everything about it - when you remember it, are you inside it or outside it? Where is it parked? From where you are, what's in front of you? What's behind you? Who owned the car? Did you ever go anywhere in the car? Where? What happened to the car - did it get sold, or junked?

You will be amazed at all the things you remember, and what it feels like to have those memories reawakened.
posted by kristi at 10:43 AM on July 13, 2012

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