How to change my brain - a two-part question.
March 5, 2019 3:59 AM   Subscribe

I struggle with two big things related to thinking, and I would like to change those things. First: I am not an 'ideas' person. Second: I think of everything as something to be done/completed/crossed off a list.

I will do what I can to be brief. These (probably more related than I think) questions have been floating around in my head for ages.

1. I am not an 'ideas' person. I am the type of person who can't really think of original business ideas, but if I had a business idea, I would work really hard and do all the steps necessary to make it work. I've been described as "amazing at executing" but I often don't make decisions about what to execute. So, I am popular in the workplace because I can get a lot of things done, but I’m sad that I am never the one who comes up with the plan.

My current boss is a brilliant person who is constantly connecting the dots and thinking ahead and could be described as a strategic genius. I would like to think more like he does, but I genuinely feel like Homer Simpson with the donkey cartoon in his head. I just don't think that way. Once an idea or plan is under way, I will think of things and additions and things we should change, etc. But I will never get us to the "We should try [XYZ]" stage. I feel like I am missing a part of my brain or I missed the training on coming up with ideas. I am told I am smart but I feel very, very dumb.

2. Related to my ability to do things, I think of pretty much everything as a task. Even things I like. I love friends and family dearly, but I often feel like the Whatsapp/texts/e-mails/etc I haven't replied to are a task. If I reply to a friend and they message me back right away, I am annoyed that I now have to do something in response, because now it's like the task is "unfinished". I want everything to be complete. Similarly, I loathe grocery shopping and cooking because these tasks are never done. I hate that I constantly have to think of them and expend energy on them and that I can never finish them for good.

The main problem with this mindset is that unless I am on holiday and far away from my daily routine/chores, I rarely ever relax. (Sometimes on holiday I slip into a "get it done" mentality [e.g. get [XYZ item] friend asked for, send postcards to [ABCDE], check in for flight home] but I can sometimes talk myself out of it.) On 'leisurely' weekend mornings, my partner and I typically make a big breakfast before going wherever we will go that day. While we are having breakfast, I am thinking of all of the dishes to be done, and that I'll need to throw in the laundry before we go out later so there's time to hang it outside while the sun is still out, and if we go out later I'll need to drop by the dry cleaners on our way because they'll be closed when I get back, which means I can break the large bill in my wallet to get smaller change for the car wash on Tuesday...



I genuinely don’t know how people can go home from work and be bored or make spontaneous plans. I always have something that needs to be done, because I can’t not do things that aren’t complete. I have a list of things to do every single day, and it drives me crazy. But I also do not want to not do the things and just be freeeeee because not meal prepping means spending too much on lunches out, and not doing laundry means I don’t have work clothes ready for the work week, and not answering my texts/Whatsapps means I will get concerned phone calls asking if I’m okay and I don’t want to worry anyone.

Any suggestions? My brain is tired, I’m tired, and I’m annoyed at living task to task. (Maybe if I had less brainspace dedicated to task-completion I’d have room to think of ideas?)

Thank you.
posted by gursky to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
People who can implement are amazing! Sounds like you would be an excellent, efficient chief operations person.

The newest thing on your task list: leisure. Maybe you need to set aside a few hours each week or month where you don’t plan, where you keep it open. Or maybe you need to convince yourself that leisure is truly valuable, not as a means to an end.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:12 AM on March 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

One thing I do is schedule some of the things on my lists, deliberately: I'm gonna do that tomorrow morning when I get up, not tonight; I'm going to make that Tuesday's project; I'm not going to start dinner prep until around eight o'clock. This means that I can sort of give my brain license not to worry about it: it's on the list so I won't forget and I've allowed enough time to get it done, but I don't have to think about it until X time/date.

I don't know if there's a way to learn to have more ideas, but I do know that few if any brilliant ideas get realized without people who are good at execution--working out the practical kinks, tinkering, seeing it through--around. I imagine your boss would say the same.
posted by huimangm at 4:36 AM on March 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have this mode. I also have another mode where I can just be thinking of the ideas, the higher level, and can't execute. I have to purposely switch between these modes: 1. being the high level dreamer and strategizer to come up with the overall picture, the forest, and leaving time for these ideas to bubble up, it is a creative mode. 2. being the executor of what needs to be done, looking at and for the individual trees. I feel like it very much is two different approaches/views, almost two distinct parts of my brains.

A thought, if you are new at your work, as in younger or less-experienced than your boss and those around you, it may be a matter of growth, you can observe and learn and see the execution, and will eventually be the ideas person. Sometimes being able to see what you can't do, but recognize it in others, is far along from people who can't even recognize these skills.
posted by RoadScholar at 4:58 AM on March 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hmmm, I am like you, but I think it's OK to be like this. I certainly don't think I'm dumb because I'm a process improver and not an inventor. So I wonder if you can try to figure out how to accept yourself the way you are, learn to value your quirks - which surely result in an efficiency and stability in your life that others envy, no? - rather than seeing them as weaknesses or traits to try to escape.

It sounds like your checklist approach to life (which I also share! I love a checklist!) is coupled with anxiety, though. Which is something that can be treated, and might be a good idea to explore.
posted by something something at 5:11 AM on March 5, 2019 [8 favorites]

I just came back to add that not being able to relax and constantly having your mind on what needs to be done is something I also experience strongly and associate with anxiety. Lots of ways to manage anxiety, therapy, meds, meditation, etc. I am only now realizing this myself after decades.

Wholeheartedly agree with something something's comment above on the anxiety and the valuing of your strengths.
posted by RoadScholar at 5:28 AM on March 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

On your point 1: "Ideas are cheap, execution is everything."* I'm wondering how much of your boss's "strategic genius" is actually because he has the support of someone who's really good at turning his generalized ideas into implementable reality? i.e. you?

I mean I'll take your word that he's a brilliant person, but please drop the idea that you're "dumb" for not thinking the way he does. You're doing the hard part. 90% of the "ideas" part is just having the confidence to make a decision and believe (and/or project the belief) that it's the correct one.

On your point 2: try adding something to your to-do list: a daily block of time during which you are Not Allowed to work on anything (or think about working on anything). This will feel like wasted time, but it is not wasted time; relaxation and recharging is just as important as 'getting it done' is, because it will help you be better at getting it done later.

Start small if you have to, it doesn't have to be a huge block of time; even once a week would be better than nothing. It'll feel weird at first, and take practice: every time you catch yourself making a plan or thinking about something that needs to get done, you'll need to consciously shut that down and bring your mind back to, well, not doing that. Think of it as meditation, if that helps. (It kind of is.)

* I'm highly embarrassed to learn that this quote is from some guy on Shark Tank, but it's totally true nonetheless. 'Ideas are cheap' is a commonplace phrase, there are a zillion wantrepreneurs with ideas but no plan. The plan is the hard part.
posted by ook at 5:28 AM on March 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

I think you sound fine just the way you are! But if you want to feel better about both your stated issues, consider going on more long walks (and leave your phone at home). I'm an anxious person with a buzzy, task-focused brain, but there's a certain point in a walk where my brain chills out and I start to notice birds. This is also when new ideas tend to bubble up for me -- not every single time, of course, but it's a reliable and easy enough practice that it might be worth trying.
posted by attentionplease at 5:48 AM on March 5, 2019

Things I might try in your shoes:
* Learning - Experience and knowledge help inform our ideas - knowing how things work and what others have tried in the past. Maybe a class or book - not about your day-to-day but about something adjacent to it?

* Something creative. Working through "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" (accessible for beginners and pros) might free you up to explore your creativity (i.e., your ability to come up with ideas) - or a writing class, learning an instrument - creative hobbies might give you a safe space to try out ideas and gain confidence. A lot of hobbies are very much about solving problems - especially when you want to make or create something that varies from the "knitting 101" book.

* Therapy. The overwhelm you describe over your list of tasks makes me think it's worthwhile just to talk through this with a professional and see if there are other things at play

(Note: I'm your polar opposite. I have ideas often - sometimes my mind is so flooded with ideas that I nearly panic. I suck at execution. I start stuff, get distracted/bored/discouraged, and flit along to the next thing (in my personal life - at work I have fewer opportunities to carry out my ideas and, sometimes, more support in executing them). I can tell you that it sucks at times - I feel as overwhelmed with my ideas as you do with your tasks. I actually come up with tons of bad ideas in addition to the good ones - it's not always obvious which are which - the reliable people who stay focused on the tasks in front of them are more likely to get recognition and promotion, at least in my work experience.)
posted by bunderful at 5:59 AM on March 5, 2019

Creativity (i.e. being an "ideas" person) is a matter of trusting yourself and practice. The first part is the hard part because you probably judge yourself, reject your ideas and say "I'm not an ideas person." Implementing and crossing things off lists is safer in that it doesn't risk the vulnerability that comes with originality. There are various exercises (practice) that people do to be creative, e.g. morning pages, and lots of books about how to get ideas (I'm not going to recommend any at the moment). And there's always therapy (unoriginal metafilter solution to all problems).
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:01 AM on March 5, 2019

IRT to changing your brain, meditation. Not a quick fix but, eventually, it'll wake you up and the first time you wake up you'll wonder why no one told you about it before. It's because most of them don't know, and that's really sad.

IRT to #1 - OMG you have it SOOOO wrong! Ideas are the easy part, people that can make things happen are totally amazing and worth their weight in gold! You need to reframe that self-image.

IRT to #2 - Secular Buddhist mindfulness, AKA meditation. A big part of it is learning to be present. If you're present then you're not working on the next task, you're right here, right now.Iit might be that right here/right now you're planning your next task and that's fine, but if you're with someone then you're fully with them. If you're cooking dinner you're fully engaged in that and planning the tomorrow's dinner isn't part of the agenda, unless you choose to make it so. It's about paying attention to what you're doing so that you can make choices rather than just rattling along on autopilot like I did for my first 52.75 years. My 53rd birthday is a couple of months away and I really wish someone had pointed me down this path earlier. There are so many decisions that I wish I could have made instead of the autopilot handling them.

PS. Not intended as evangelization, only information. YMMV but if you don't know about it you can't try it. It's not a quick fix and definitely have to do the work. It's totally compatible with any religion as it doesn't require that you believe anything, only that you do things. The things you do are mostly sit, and pay attention, and have compassion, especially for yourself.
posted by Awfki at 7:18 AM on March 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

The grass really is greener on the other side. I'm the opposite, and let me tell you which one is a more marketable skill...

Chances are, you actually do have ideas, but you're just not keeping track of or following up on them because you're so focused on your defined tasks. The solution here is to use #2 to change #1. Think of "coming up with some ideas" as a task, and schedule 15 minutes to a half hour a day to work on it. James Altucher recommends writing down ten ideas a day. The key is to do it regularly. I'm a big believer that creativity is a skill, just like anything else, and you get better at it by doing it. If you spend a half hour a day swimming, or speaking French, you may never get to be as good as an Olympic swimmer or a native speaker, but you won't tread water in a panic or just say "je ne sais pas" in response to every question. Practice.

The question, then, is how to come up with these ideas. Like I said, you probably already have. You're telling me you've never sat in traffic and thought to yourself "I should drive a different route"? Most good ideas come from pain points. Start by writing down some things that make you unhappy, or cause problems at work. Is there a process that creates bottlenecks? Do you have a supplier who just stinks? Are your costs too high for something? Then, for each one, write down a couple of ways you could solve that problem. How can you adjust your process to avoid bottlenecks? Is that process required? Could you allocate more resources to it? Is the wrong person involved? How can you replace that lousy supplier? Is there another supplier who can do the same thing? Could you produce the item in-house instead? Etc., etc. Each day, write down 3-5 pain points, and 2-3 solutions for each.

Then, and this is the key, come back and re-evaluate them later. Every idea sounds like a good idea at the time. You want to see if it still sounds good later. Schedule other brainstorming sessions at regular intervals (one week, one month, one year) where you go back and read your ideas from that day last week/month/year. Is the pain point you identified still a problem? And if so, do your proposed solutions still solve the problem? Are they feasible? If they don't solve the problem, or aren't feasible, ask yourself why not? Why did you think it would solve the problem originally? This is the deliberate practice aspect. You're not just doing something (coming up with ideas, swimming, speaking French); the key is to evaluate your current ability to do those things, and then using that to figure out how to do those things better in the future. To use the speaking French example, if your evaluation leads you to realize that you're mis-gendering nouns, one solution would be to spend more time focusing on gender when you first learn the vocabulary. If you find your work ideas are, say, too expensive to implement, try to come up with ideas that don't cost anything.

Something to keep in mind is that even people who have a lot of good ideas also have a lot more bad ones. It's like basketball. Steph Curry is one of the best 3-point shooters in NBA history, but his career 3-point percentage is only .436. For as many threes as he makes, he misses even more. But nobody remembers the misses, because everyone misses threes. To extend the analogy to your situation: You're passing up open looks because you might miss. Your "creative genius" boss is chucking up shots every chance he gets, not caring if he misses or not, because he knows he'll make a couple. Some (most?) of his ideas are probably airballs, but nobody remembers those.

The same thing applies to free time/boredom/relaxation. Schedule it. This is another task. Today, you will have 30 minutes of open time from 8:00-8:30pm, and you have to complete that task before you can move on to doing the dishes, etc.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:22 AM on March 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

You sound a lot like me! Weirdly, what works for me is using my tendency to make things into tasks as an advantage. I'm overwhelmed by big, ambiguous projects, but if I turn them into discrete tasks then I can start executing on them. This even includes creative projects. It turns out I am creative, but I need structure and constraints to bring that creativity out. For example--when you're trying to come up with a business idea, think about a problem instead of a solution. Divide that problem into its component parts. Subdivide each of those components. You'll find problems concrete enough that the solutions are self-evident.

I also agree with the advice to take long walks without a device. I've come up with lots of creative ideas on a walk or in the shower. (That said, even my creative ideas look like neat, organized frameworks!)

And I take a little comfort in my lack of spontaneity. It's another reframe. I like routine; it makes me happy. I like having a to-do list; it makes me happy. I like taking vacations where everything is planned down to the half hour. Once you start writing down your mental to-do list, it's taking up space on paper instead of in your brain. I have to-do lists everywhere.

Finally, another thing that helps is surrounding yourself with people who are spontaneous and bring it out in you. Even pets can do this--pets are naturally pretty chaotic. I'm in a relationship with someone who is definitely Not A Planner, and spending time together reminds me that it can be fun to just do what you feel like doing, when you feel like doing it.
posted by capricorn at 7:30 AM on March 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

I hate that I constantly have to think of them and expend energy on them and that I can never finish them for good.

The problem here isn't that you track things to be done. The problem is that you aren't doing a good enough job of it. You should look into task management systems, like Getting Things Done. It's fine to have lots of things to do, and to do the laundry in time for the sun. But you shouldn't have that just sitting in your mind all the time, you should have it captured in your task management list/system/whatever so you can forget it and enjoy breakfast.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:41 AM on March 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is not an answer to your question, but it is related, and may be useful depending on where you are at in the arc of your career, or where you want it to go.

Why Highly Efficient Leaders Fail

Regardless, yours is a great AskMe, thank you for posting it.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 8:37 PM on April 5, 2019

Also, regarding "I am not an ideas person" : I've found in my professional career that "ideas people" are a dime a dozen but good reliable executors are much more hard to come by, and are highly valued.

Ideas Are Free, Execution Is Priceless: 366 Actionable Ideas, Challenging Insights and Disturbing Questions to Help You Take Action on What Matters


Consistency is Far Better Than Rare Moments of Greatness
posted by armoir from antproof case at 8:49 PM on April 5, 2019

this reply is long overdue but I am just reviewing the answers (again!) and wanted to say a big thank you to everyone for their insight and advice. it is very much appreciated.
posted by gursky at 10:26 AM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

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