Paid Thinking Time... but what about?
May 18, 2006 10:41 AM   Subscribe

I work at a national retail store full-time, and the majority of the time when I'm not working the register it's all very simple stuff like straightening and folding clothes. It only takes maybe 15%* of my focus. I need suggestions for things to think about, mental games, and methods of mental improvement to take up the other 85%.

I don't want every hour I work to be just a wasted hour of my life(getting paid notwithstanding), so I'd like to find some way to at worst entertain myself, at best improve myself. Some info about my mental strengths/weaknesses:
I'm creative, knowledgeable about a lot of random stuff, communicative, and am good with words.
But I'm poor at visualizing, not great with numbers, and my memory is inconsistent.

Final requirement is that it can't use props, since I'll be on the sales floor and can't carry a book or Ouija board around with me.

And no, I'm not on commission, and yes, I always help customers first. A lot of days it's slow though and I just have a lot of freetime.

*Source: M.Y.A.S.S. Database, 2006.
posted by ElfWord to Education (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
When you see numbers, add them. Or subtract, or multiply, or alternate between processes. In other words, if you glance at a price tag that reads $13.88, then you might think to yourself, "1 + 3 = 4, and 4 + 8 = 12, and 12 + 8 = 20"). Numbers are everywhere, and it's a simple game that helps polish your arithmetic. I found it in a book about improving math skills.
posted by cribcage at 10:48 AM on May 18, 2006

Watch people. Watch how they treat each other, and treat you. Figure out how you want to treat people.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:49 AM on May 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Use that time to plan for another job, one that engages more of your interest.

However, if this is an adequate job for you, practice a mental discipline, like setting up a chess board and moving the pieces, remembering the positions of each. Build your dream home, or decorate your apartment. Write a poem or short story, in such detail that you can simply write it down later.
posted by cptnrandy at 10:55 AM on May 18, 2006

Whenever I've worked retail or grocery type jobs, I usually simply raced myself to see how fast I could comlete tasks with breaking merchandise or comprimising on end quality. Although that's not really mental, so much as hand-eye coordination type stuff. In the mental department, I tried to practice memory skills, for instance at the grocery store I set about putting all the produce codes in my head. Bananas=4011, Tomatoes on the vine=4664, granny smith apples=4018 (I could go on for a while)
posted by fantastic at 11:01 AM on May 18, 2006

Learn a language? Try to learn the vocabulary to name everything in the store that you handle/do on a regular basis.
posted by fuzzbean at 11:01 AM on May 18, 2006

You could work on your memory skills if you kept a list of something by the counter that you could review, then try and recall as you walk around.

This article has some tips on working small forms of exercise into daily life.

I really like the idea about spending time watching people. You could see how much information you can get from a person by just 'reading' them, and try to guess their story.

I might try and plan out a menu for the week, then focus on individual meals and branch out from there. What new twists could I try on dishes that I make a lot?

I feel for you, and I'm sure anyone who has worked retail does as well.
posted by chimmyc at 11:09 AM on May 18, 2006

Write a blog: "Thoughts from the Sales Floor." Compose your blog entries in your head while you are working. It could be observations based on your job, or just creative musings you have at work. Carry a notepad or notecard to capture your main points so you don't forget them.
posted by brain_drain at 11:09 AM on May 18, 2006

You could get a mantra (maybe: Om Mani Padme Hum or Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha) and repeat it over and over again focusing your attention on it.

After a while, you'll get results.
posted by milarepa at 11:13 AM on May 18, 2006

When I worked at the campus salad bar in college I used to write my papers between checking the temperature of the cottage cheese and replenishing the dressings. Mentally, that is, though I did have a tiny notebook that I kept in my pocket to jot things occasionally. When I got back to the dorm I could simply fire up the old typewriter and regurgitate it.

Since I had to work there all four years, I eventually asked if I could do something more challenging. Can you talk to your supervisior about taking on more responsibilities? Maybe a long term project that could be worked on in those dull moments?
posted by Biblio at 11:19 AM on May 18, 2006

When I worked doing pizza delivery in high school, I used to fill my mental time with one of four things:

1. Read about a philosophical problem (or political) issue the night before and read some of the arguments for and against. Then, the next day spend time actually considering the issues - what arguments would you construct for and against? Did they really make sense? How much was the result of your own emotions and wierd biases? What are the trade-offs? In this way, I started to systematically examine all of my beliefs and why I held them: political, sociological, moral, economic etc.

2. One thing I am interested in is how things work and how problems have been solved. I'd start off by picking something in the world and making elaborate guesses about how it worked: How are bridges constructed - or underwater tunnels? Whats the procedure? What kinds of problems do urban planning people face and solve? How do shipping companies or airline companies make sure all their resources dont end up in the same place? How do radios work? Whats the best way to optimize stoplights in a big city?
I'd come up with an elaborate theory and then, after work, check on how close I had come.

3. This may not work if you are not a math geek. But I'd also try to reconstruct proofs about things I knew or try to come up with new discoveries. Around high school I was mostly interested in Topology and would try to devise visualizations in my head of how N-dimensional regular objects would look as they traveled through a 3-d world.

4. I'd write a story in my head. Slowly adding plot elements, characters, adventures. Very few times would this make it to paper but it was a great creative exercise since I took the extra step of writing the sentences in my head, revising them, making them stronger and less cliched.
posted by vacapinta at 11:22 AM on May 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

Great suggestions, Vacapinta.

I used to count up Prime Numbers. See how high you can get without screwing it up. Once, during a particularly boring shift, I firmly believe I made it into the ten thousands.
posted by Cycloptichorn at 11:53 AM on May 18, 2006

are languages of interest? This is, clearly, something that you'd have to have put some time into outside of work...

i've always (always) used mind-downtime to think about and practice foreign languages, both ones that I'm just learning and ones that I'm proficient in. I'm not saying you have to count to 100, though it's a possible activity, but just putting the sentences and sounds together. This is one of my favorite ways to reinforce vocabulary and to really understand the connections between words. Whatever I'm thinking about at the moment, I take the effort to think about and phrase it in another language...
posted by whatzit at 12:06 PM on May 18, 2006

Find another job - any store that slow can't stay in business long! Seriously, I worked retail for over 15 years, and slow times were usually bad news for the store.
posted by dbmcd at 12:22 PM on May 18, 2006

Does an ipod count as a prop? There are lots of really good college lectures on tape out there.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 12:31 PM on May 18, 2006

Yeah an iPod would be ideal. Between audio books, conference proceedings and podcasts, I am never without something engaging to listen to. I can't remember the last time I did yard work or folded laundry without my iPod.

You could also 'write' stories. Not necessarily compose sentences but make up interesting stories and tell them to yourself. Later, if you want, you might enjoy actually writing them down.
posted by joegester at 1:20 PM on May 18, 2006

MIT 's Open Courseware has a selection of audio and video lectures.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 1:39 PM on May 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

When I worked at a factory job, my brain would busy itself writing songs. The rhythm of the machines definitely pushed me in that direction, but if you are so inclined, you'll find a rhythm in any task. Not only are you exercising your musicality and wordsmithery, but I found that I was much more productive. Your hands and head are both caught up in the rhythm of the task, so your mind doesn't wander and your hands keep moving steadily and precisely.
posted by team lowkey at 2:00 PM on May 18, 2006

Find some technical or philosophical problem that has some actual application and fold it around your mind.

As for intellectual iPod-fodder: look up "Entitled Opinions", "Open Source", "Philosophy Talk" and some science shows.

When I'm doing something mundane I'm either catching up with podcasts or thinking through ideas of extra-curricular challenges (eg. open-source software I'm working on and so on).
posted by tommorris at 2:08 PM on May 18, 2006

Memorize the layout of the store - not just where the departments are, but every type of item and its location. See if you can visualize in your head every aisle and its contents. (Very impressive if you can tell a customer exactly where to find their items, down to the aisle and shelf, rather than just "the housewares department."

If you can get good at this, and you also get good at watching people and anticipating their shopping (or shoplifting) patterns, apply for a job in store security.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:42 PM on May 18, 2006

I'm with team lowkey. If you're interested in music, especially percussion, try to come up with some interesting rhythms. I've worked out some interesting things in periods of unavoidable downtime– one example being a 6/8 clave beat over a 3:2 polyrhythm. If you get good at this, start subtracting and mixing the parts - if you've got three rhythms going independently, remove one without losing step, and then switch them out, etc.

Secondly, along mathematical lines, I don't know if you've ever played Crypto, but it can be done with any collection of numbers you see. It's a game where you're dealt four cards from a deck where each card has an integer in the range of 0-9 on it, and a fifth card from the deck is laid elsewhere, and the task is to use addition, subtraction, multiplication and/or division on the four numbers to yield the fifth. Usually you play with other people and try to find a solution before they do, but it's enriching to play alone, too.
posted by invitapriore at 2:51 PM on May 18, 2006

Become an expert on something. You'd be amazed how much you can learn about a subject via books, audio books, films, podcasts, blogs, etc. Pick something you've always been interested in and dive in deep.
posted by JPowers at 3:13 PM on May 18, 2006

Memorize poetry.

A line or two at a time, and you don't need props; or you can write a whole poem on a piece of paper, and keep that folded in your pocket.
posted by Jeanne at 6:58 PM on May 18, 2006

Learn chess and play that in your head. It focuses you amazingly, amazingly well.
posted by devilsbrigade at 7:10 PM on May 18, 2006

I'll tell you what won't work. I was an Einstein's Bagels clerk back when I was into meditation, reading Siddhartha, etc. I tried to see if I could find mental peace and take myself to a new level of purity or whatnot while helping people with their scallion schmears. I would sit out on the sidewalk strip and try to meditate during break, etc. This did not work one bit for me.

What about conversation skills? I got good at that at restaurants. See how quickly you can get past inane chit-chat to where someone tells you what they really care about or otherwise come alive.
posted by salvia at 10:56 PM on May 18, 2006

comes alive, I mean. Maybe I could've practiced subject-verb conjugation while working the bagel counter.
posted by salvia at 10:57 PM on May 18, 2006

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