How to *think*
April 24, 2024 1:38 PM   Subscribe

If I really want to think about stuff, my modus is, I go to a bar that is 5 minutes away, there usually is a seat at the counter, I sit there, stare at the bottles, drink a beer or three and ponder whatever is troubling me at the moment. There is music, it's lively, and I just let my mind do its thing. I can not do this at home, if I just sit down on the kitchen table, or on the couch I just can't get in the mindset and I feel kind of stupid, you know, just sitting there and staring in the void. I can do it when I am lying down before sleep, but if it's 20:00 this also feels strange. Listening to music does not make it better. I think it is the stimulus rich environment that is conductive to the process. I can think of other venues to do this but they are not dependably available, or near, when the need arises (usually after kid and wife are in bed or otherwise occupied). I guess most people do some mindless task or art or something, but I find I get easily absorbed in such activities . I don't know if walking around would work. So where and how do you *think*?
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon to Religion & Philosophy (40 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Here’s some of the where…
1. In the shower.
2. Driving alone with music and not anywhere stressful.
3. Out on a walk or run (even the treadmill). The Nike Run app has some guided meditations that are weirdly helpful.
posted by SaneCatLady at 1:43 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]

I am not sure if this will work for you, but I do my best thinking in the shower.
posted by Sparky Buttons at 1:43 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]

Shower, bath, or hot tub
posted by drdanger at 1:51 PM on April 24

Walking absolutely works for me. No music, no podcasts, just walking. You get the stimulus and I think there's something about the movement that also helps.
posted by My Kryptonite is Worry at 1:52 PM on April 24 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Showers are great but you can't shower for two hours. You could take a bath, but at least for me this also gets old quite fast.
posted by SweetLiesOfBokonon at 1:52 PM on April 24

In a pinch if you don't want to leave the house, sitting somewhere you don't normally. E.g. I might grab coloured post its and sit on the ground and write out random thoughts. Perhaps after a ritual like preparing tea or something.
posted by lookoutbelow at 2:01 PM on April 24

Just a shot in the dark, you can download custom ambient sounds... for instance this site has sounds like Cafe Restaurant and many others. For a fee you can customize them using slider controls for different elements of the "noise". When I was WFH before I retired I would use that to narrow my focus, but YMMV.
posted by forthright at 2:08 PM on April 24 [3 favorites]

This is what road trips are for perfect for.
posted by slidell at 2:09 PM on April 24 [6 favorites]

On long walks or lap swimming.
posted by wheatlets at 2:17 PM on April 24 [2 favorites]

For me, nothing beats walking when I need to think. There's no reason you can't go for a walk after dark if that's when the need arises. (Or maybe there is; I guess it depends on where you live.) But I can't imagine doing any useful thinking at the counter of a lively bar, so maybe what works for me wouldn't work for you at all.

Could you sit in your yard with a beer and watch the cars go by or try to see what your neighbors are doing? Or if your neighborhood is too quiet, can you drive somewhere where there are cars or people to watch and then sit in your car watching them?
posted by Redstart at 2:24 PM on April 24

Best answer: the Peripatetic School

walking, thinking.. it has a pedigree!
posted by elkevelvet at 2:26 PM on April 24 [4 favorites]

On the train or the bus. On a walk, or sitting in the park or at the beach or along the river. While journaling or just doodling. While doing chores. While pacing in my apartment. While stretching or “meditating” (laying on the floor). While reading or watching something, and letting my mind wander away from it. While having a pretend conversation with someone in my head. While bouncing a rubber ball a la Toby Ziegler. While fidgeting with literally ANYTHING.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 2:29 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]

Driving, and then parking up somewhere with a view to stare out of the windscreen. Radio optional.
posted by penguin pie at 2:29 PM on April 24

Walking for sure. (I need to walk more!)
posted by velvet_n_purrs at 2:48 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]

Writing helps me get into this mode, doesn't have to be anything profound. Just stream of consciousness style, putting down whatever comes to mind.
posted by Eyelash at 3:00 PM on April 24 [2 favorites]

My body has to be occupied with something that doesn't require much of my mind. Walking definitely works and so does shelving books at the library. So do the "boring" parts of handicrafts, like simple repetitive knitting - if I really want to think and I can't go for a walk, I'll knit something easy like socks or a dishcloth.
posted by darchildre at 3:04 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]

Go for a walk, no music, no podcasts, no headphones.

I was very resistant to this at first, but I thought that if Julia Cameron was right about morning pages, she could be right about walking.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:09 PM on April 24 [2 favorites]

It just comes when you need it. You can't control it.
posted by Czjewel at 3:29 PM on April 24

I can’t do it in my head; I have to journal.
posted by lokta at 4:13 PM on April 24

Bike ride, walk, hike, swim...without phone, music, podcast, background distraction.
posted by lulu68 at 4:40 PM on April 24

I find giving my SO massages brings about conditions for excellent brainstorming.
posted by parmanparman at 4:42 PM on April 24

I happen to do my best thinking in lectures that I don't care about. This isn't particularly helpful to you, because one can't really conjure up a lecture, specifically one you don't really care about, as often as one might could walk into a bar. But I thought I might mention it because I think you've hit on some details that maybe some of the other answers here have not brought to the fore, especially the ones talking about removing distractions. Your thinking place is full of audio, visual, physical stimuli, any of which can be tuned into or out of at will, like the ocean coming up on your path...just like when I sit in a 3/4 lecture hall while somebody talks up front.

What could replace that? Bowling alleys? A local event space that has some nonsense you can ignore? Is the drink required?
posted by AbelMelveny at 5:03 PM on April 24 [5 favorites]

For me, it is walking, driving and in the shower. I recently had a 14 hour drive that I was planning on it being 2 days, but it was so productive in terms of my mind and thinking that I just kept going. It helps if I have like a Grateful Dead concert on the satellite, especially ones I have heard before with great long meandering jams.

If you think you can't shower for an hour or two, you have never met my boys when they were teenagers or in college after a long night of drinking. I am talking put a folding chair in the shower and let the hot water run.

I also get some serious think time in when doing mindless tasks like folding laundry, ironing my sheets (digression, but everybody should sleep on crisply ironed sheets!), cleaning my closets, mowing the lawn, cutting veggies and prepping for dinner, and generally doing tasks that have become somewhat rote in nature.

Sometimes when I go to a sporting event like a Yankees game by myself, I can get lost in thought.

I find it really helpful to pre think. I will try to get my subconscious mind working for the later think session.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:26 PM on April 24

Sit by a body of water.
posted by jgirl at 5:30 PM on April 24 [3 favorites]

Sometimes I walk to a park or a scenic viewpoint. The walking part is not absolutely necessary--I find I can think like this in some natural environments (botanical garden, ocean surf) and also in busy parks where there are people to watch. Or a viewpoint over a freeway--watching traffic can also be good.
posted by purple_bird at 5:42 PM on April 24

I seldom listen to anything, and have a few hours to go over a thing. I have to consciously switch 'off' and onto the topic of my destination ten minutes or so before I arrive though.

I'm with eyelash re writing, especially if it's about something that doesn't exist yet (like a building or a space I'm analysing, or designing) - and I write a page or so and imagine myself moving (in my mind) through that space, meeting people, looking for places to sit that are cool, warm, breezy, still... usually called creative visualisation. To start just write anything - look out the window and narrate what I see, and I find I drop into writing about my problem space within a couple of lines.

Yep, somewhere natural helps too, doesn't have to be untouched, just a tree in a park will do.

If I want to free-associate a book helps, not any book but usually Installation Art by Oliviera, it seems to do the trick and jars me away from comfort.
posted by unearthed at 6:23 PM on April 24

The thing most like a bar but not is… a coffee shop? I have done plenty of thinking there. Also on walks. I used to walk around and smoke cigarettes but I quit smoking them, and it turns out the cigarettes weren't so important. But they did add a little something . There's also all kinds of mushroom and herbal tisanes people say help with thinking.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:40 PM on April 24

The university library is my favorite place to sit and think (and pick through really old books about even older books), but I have kids and a job etc. so I don't spend a lot of time there. Failing that, I love walking. When my kids are in the "stare out of the stroller" phase where they aren't really talking I'll take them with me. Sometimes it's too hot out and I'll walk around the mall.
posted by Polycarp at 7:27 PM on April 24

Gazing into a fire. Campfire or fireplace/wood stove. Real wood works best for me, but a gas fire can also do a decent job of being sufficiently hypnotic to let my mind relax and ponder.

Also gazing at open water (lake, ocean, etc) or rain. Rain in a coffeeshop or teahouse is particularly nice.
posted by cnidaria at 8:31 PM on April 24 [4 favorites]

Walking/hiking. Staring at water, trees/greenery, a fire, or sitting at a viewpoint. Driving on the highway or interstate.
Weeding. Sometimes other chores or yardwork, depending on specific circumstances.
Laying flat on my back in a comfortable, QUIET spot outdoors where I can stare at clouds.
Sitting in a coffee shop/restaurant/bar, especially if I can stare out a window, so long as it's either quiet or the other people/music/noises aren't irritating.

Oddly, shopping. (More like browsing, because I rarely purchase much, if anything, when I'm doing it to think). Bigger retail stores, small stores where there are a lot of individual things to look at, or anywhere I can just sort of wander and process. Stores where people constantly ask me if I need help are a no-go, and that's a large part of why I find it so irritating. Powells and Goodwill also work nicely.

A lot of libraries aren't good for thinking, anymore, for me... they're too open and bright and all-one-room-ish, and so much more distracting and noisy than they used to be. I really struggle to either concentrate or zone out there. Strongly prefer the old style of several separate rooms.
posted by stormyteal at 9:15 PM on April 24

Back in the day, I had a 12km - 7½mi commute by bike. I often !aha! successfully debugged code while in the saddle. My working hypothesis was that exercise increased blood-flow generally including through the brain and the alertness necessary to stay alive bled over into the coding parts.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:05 AM on April 25 [1 favorite]

Seconding the biking, it works very well for me.

Less about the where and more about the how: I usually need a whiteboard or (preferably large) sheet of paper to think things over. (Mind map software also works.) Drawing a web diagram puts me in 'thinking' mode just about automatically.

I'm a fan of web diagrams because they both encourage following a train of thought into ever more detail and adding adjacent thoughts, so the flow of thoughts just keeps coming.
posted by demi-octopus at 1:51 AM on April 25

I feel like an important component to this is that it's been very difficult for me to think on command. Kind of like when someone screams RELAX!!! Or commands "calm down".

But I do have times and places when I think better than others. For me it's about knowing when and where those are likely, and protecting them as rituals. Not scheduling things during those times. And if I do find myself there, giving myself permission to protect it.

I think well later in the afternoon when most people have left the building and it's finally quiet. It's OK if I get home late for dinner on those days.
posted by Dashy at 5:28 AM on April 25

I have sometimes been able to do this in my own home by going into my Zoom room where I have a comfortable chair. I take online writing classes which include some one-hour sessions that are only "writing together," no discussion. The teacher just greets everyone, then says when half the time is up, then says goodbye. I get that class started on my laptop and go. When I don't have one of those available, I sometimes log into a live meditation session on YouTube.

If absolutely nothig else is available, I may just sit down with a notebook with a couple of topics jotted down. It's as close as I can come to duplicating the feeling of thinking and writing on an airplane, which is alose very productive for me.

There is something magical about those "third places," though. Bars, coffee shops, libaries. If I had one in walking distance, I'd be going a lot.
posted by BibiRose at 7:04 AM on April 25

I often do make some kind of thing - art, cooking/baking, or organize a junk drawer or DOOM (didn't organize, only moved) box.

But - and I assure you this feels cringe and you have to get over that - one of the best techniques I know is to pretend to be interviewed about The Thing. You can totally do this written, but there is something about the wise nod and "I have to say, Barbra, I really lost some sleep about that part." You need a room you can shut yourself into, and you can whisper, but there is something about the verbal processing and the focus on an external interviewer that really pops your brain into a whole other place.

Now, when my brain needs to percolate rather than resolve - when it needs to buffer - I play bejeweled. I paid for it to remove the ads, and I generally prefer either Butterflies or Diamond Mine. Some people Tetris. I just urge you to avoid anything with words/reading because that engages the wrong part of the brain.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:06 AM on April 25 [2 favorites]

I walk around hardware stores, preferably non-chain stores staffed by 70 year olds who know a 'thinkin' walk' when they see it.
posted by ananci at 8:46 AM on April 25

Stream of consciousness writing is definitely the thing that does this for me! The way I'm wired, I can only think and write at the same time if I'm writing long-hand, but I know for other people typing works better. Just sit down with a notebook (or keyboard) and write whatever comes in your head. Usually my first couple paragraphs start with something along the lines of "not sure why I'm writing" or something equally silly, but once I've gotten to the end of the first page, I've almost always wandered my way into whatever I couldn't quite figure out was on my mind.

The other thing that works for me is mechanical sorts of doodling -- usually coloring in a grid on graph paper or something like that -- or a very repetitive craft project. Really simple knitting is great; there's only so long that my brain can stay focused on counting to 5 repeatedly, so once I get into the rhythm it's good for thinking. Craft projects where there are decisions I have to make or instructions I have to check don't work, it has to be something almost totally mechanical.

Something else that might work for you is recreating that sound environment that you know works -- if you search YouTube for "bar background noise" or similar, you'll find plenty of tracks. You could put one of those on headphones and make yourself a drink. Maybe sit somewhere you don't usually. I sometimes find that I can think/concentrate better if I go sit in the chair in my guest room that I usually don't use, or even just in a different living room chair instead of my usual spot on the couch.

Since a bar usually works for you, maybe sit at your dining table, but pick a different spot at the table than you usually use. It sounds a little silly, but you can also add a bit of ritual around it. Put on your shoes and coat, go outside and walk around the block, then come in and sit down at the table with your coat on the back of your chair. You've just metaphorically "walked to the bar" and now you can sit there and think. I do something like that for working from home, and the physical separation really helps to shift me into a different mode.
posted by duien at 11:46 AM on April 25

I would definitely give walking a shot.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:49 AM on April 25

Best answer: There's some overlap for me in what I used to prefer for studying and where I find useful to think. The #1 thing for both noise/music/movement that I can tune out.

I've enjoyed 'foreign language' music (french pop, old Japanese soul, etc) - customize to your non-native languages, also modern instrumental (satie, glass, Zoe Keating), sometimes gentle 'African soul' (not sure what is included in 'african'), tinawiren(sp?), or maybe some polish or eastern European accordian if I can find something I like. I have to avoid hip hop or I get distracted, mixed results with dance music - sometimes it's just the thing, sometimes absolutely not.

If I can have walked rapidly prior to sitting down, even better. I agree with others who've said walking and I'd add hiking, but for a city-friendly nighttime option, bar/coffee shop or a restaurant where you can hide in the back corner with an appetizer and headphones (tip well!) works well too.

I sometimes studied in a Panera despite being GF and disliking their menu simply because they tolerated long stays (so many drinks I didn't want) and they'd get busy enough on weekends to put me in the clear space found in the middle of noise, bodies and chaos, as long as I could block it out with headphones. There's a very chaotic and popular pizza joint where I live now with often deafening metal music (the kitchen chooses so it's all over the place - rarely have i heard something I recognize) and I've had lovely thinks while writing or staring out the window there.

Similarly, try mall food courts, busy university libraries (especially if its not 'your' library ie law or medical as I was neither). I enjoyed train stations in England, though those were mostly pubs in train stations where I could sit and mind my own business with lots of people walking by.

Other than hiking I haven't found parks or nature to work well for me, but I'm still on the lookout for one that will change that opinion. I suspect I need more activity/chaos for thinking but I enjoy parks for their own sake, especially walking!

Thanks for the question - I'm making notes too.
posted by esoteric things at 10:41 PM on April 25

Late night diner?

Also does your area have festivals or events that take place in the evening? Like maybe a night market or something?
posted by creatrixtiara at 12:48 AM on April 28

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