Where does your mind go when you’re not working on anything in particular?
Giving your brain a specific list of problems to keep running in the background and be on the lookout for possible solutions is a brilliant exercise for all curious minds.
When you’re navigating the world (wide web), you get exposed to all kinds of ideas, worldviews and ways of thinking. And some of them might prove useful, if you know what you’re looking for. This is why you need to define the problems that matter to you in the first place.
This idea was popularized by Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman.
You have to keep a dozen of your favourite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will live in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
2 Types of Thinking
First things first. How does this idea fit within the larger framework of how we think? Why would it even work?
Let’s start by getting familiar with 2 sets of thinking types: Diffuse vs Focused and Analytical vs Lateral thinking.
Focused vs Diffuse Thinking
Barbara Oakley, the teacher of the famous online course Learning how to learn, popularized this model.
Usually, when we know we have to resolve a certain issue, we imagine ourselves working diligently in a high-focus mode, what we might call deep work. However, there’s only so much we can achieve by this kind of concentration, and at some point we’ll deplete our mind of resources, namely attention and energy. These things are costly and we can’t sustain them for a long time. But research shows that we don’t necessarily need to. We can take advantage of what’s called the diffuse mode.
Diffuse mode thinking happens when we’re not actively concentrating on any activity. It’s in the periods of downtime, such as taking a shower, going for a walk or the breaks between tasks.1A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science, Barbara Oakley This state is characterized by free mind wandering and a fluidity of thought that allows our brains to process information in a more relaxed fashion, but still powerful enough to produce insights. It’s more big-picture focused and allows you to make new connections or pathways in your brain.
This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights. Unlike the focused mode, the diffuse mode seems less affiliated with any one area of the brain—you can think of it as being “diffused” throughout the brain.
It’s important to stress that this only works on certain types of problems, those that involve large amounts of information and numerous variables. Any problem that requires a systematic approach to solve won’t work here. You can let your mind wander all day, it’s not going to work out what 8% of 31,000 is. But if the problem in question is a tangled mess of conflicting information, variables and constraints, then you may benefit from allowing your unconscious mind to tease out a solution.2Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport
Analytic Thinking vs Lateral Thinking
Lateral thinking is a term coined in 1967 by psychologist Edward de Bono. It can be thought of as a mental model for solving problems, which calls for using creativity and unconventional methods to arrive at desired solutions. Its name hints at the “out-of-the-box” philosophy behind this concept. It stands in opposition to a step-by-step process.
Lateral thinking is a creative method of coming up with new ideas or solutions, such as asking “what if?” or trying to associate the concept you’re working on with a random word, to see if anything comes out of it. Or it can be ignited by asking “What would X do?” Where X is a person, either real or fictional that exhibits the characteristics needed to overcome your obstacle. For example, in a challenging business situation you may ask “What would Benjamin Franklin do?” This way, you can open up a new perspective and briefly consider the world from your character’s point of view.
In essence, a lateral thinker strives to overcome “received wisdom” and perhaps even to go back to first principles. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when trying to “go around the problem” and find a more innovative solution:
1. Don’t play by the rules. It’s probably why the thing you’re trying to solve exists in the first place. Rather, change the rules entirely. Think: what would this look like if I didn’t have these constraints?
2. Don’t follow the obvious sequence of steps. Take a completely different path or try to skip some steps or work around others.
3. Don’t look for conventional solutions, or ones that confirm your beliefs. Keep your eyes out for the pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit.
Tying it all together
Utilizing the diffuse mode thinking with lateral thinking will be necessary in tackling complex issues, such as your 12 favorite problems. Creativity, innovation and open-mindedness are crucial when looking for novel insights.
My 12 Favorite Problems
After years of research into the disciplines that interest me, and days of deliberately thinking about my 12 favorite problems, I’ve come up with a list. I wanted to strike a balance between big-picture issues, personal interests, concrete and abstract matters. This is the result. I expect it to get refined over time.
1. How can we, either as individuals, organizations or humanity as a whole, determine what is essential to our flourishing and focus on that?
2. How can we escape a nihilistic, materialistic, reductionist view of the world, without returning to superstition and dangerous belief systems?
3. How can we learn to ask better questions?
4. How can we have better conversations with people we disagree with on fundamental matters?
5. How can we protect our democracies? Are there any alternatives to democracy?
6. How can we find the fine line between protecting free speech and not allowing the perpetuation of unscientific conspiratorial thinking?
7. How can we cultivate a deep connection with ourselves, the world, and others, rooted in scientific facts but not dismissing ancient wisdom?
8. How can I best use my skills and experience to contribute to something meaningful that will serve the world?
10. What does the future of education look like? How can we best prepare the young generation for a changing world?
11. What are the things we deem necessary to life as we know it, when in fact they’re dispensable?
12. What are our outlooks on life that are fundamentally wrong, and how can we identify them?
How To Find Your 12 Favorite Problems
When thinking about your own set of problems, you may want to create a list of topics that are of great interest to you. These can be things related to your job or domain of activity, or simply questions that you’re always pondering. It may be worthwhile to start by identifying the major themes you’ll be pulling from. In my case, some were meaning in life, future of humanity and education.
Some questions to ask yourself that can prove useful in your quest:
What is something that’s troubling you deeply?
What do you wish was different in the world?
What is something you can’t stop thinking about?
Where can your skills and expertise be best applied?
It’s important to get the details right. You don’t want them too broad, but you don’t want something too specific either. Make them narrow enough to know the constraints you’re working with, but still allow for some flexibility.
Ultimately, channel your inner curiosity and don’t be afraid of posing any wrong questions.
If you want to go deeper, I recommend you check out this guide on how to find your favorite problems.
How to Work on Your 12 Favorite Problems
Although Feynman says to keep them in “the back of your mind,” don’t take it literally. It will be more effective to put them in a document or a personal knowledge management system where they won’t be collecting dust, but to which you can come back and write what new ideas you’ve discovered, make connections and deepen your understanding of the issues.
Being aware of these problems will inform how you consume information, what you pay attention to and what you focus on in your work.
Focused and Diffuse: Two Modes of Thinking by Farnam Street
- 1A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science, Barbara Oakley
- 2Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport