0364 – tidy up your mental filing cabinets

I mentioned “mental filing cabinets” in a previous post, and I figure if I don’t write about them now, I probably never will. So let’s get them out of the way.

I remember once having a conversation with my boss and a colleague about decision-making, and about cognitive resources. How how think about thinking, how to think about the world, how to use what you know to make sense of what is in front of you, to go from where you are to where you want to go. How to think, how to act, that sort of thing. [1]

So again, the first principles are– to recognize that everything is part of the same overall reality, and everything in that reality is made up of atoms and particles, and every state has causes and effects [2], and so if you understand what created a situation, you should be able (theoretically) to understand how to change it. Of coures, some things are irreversibly complex given the blunt tools we have. We can understand how an egg gets scrambled, but we aren’t necessarily able to unscramble an egg. (Fixing the Middle East crisis seems to be remarkably like unscrambling an egg.) So the final question will be, “can entropy be reversed?” But while that train of thought can be profound and humbling, it doesn’t particularly help us decide how to spend the rest of the evening. It doesn’t help us decide what to do with the next year of our life, or the next decade, and so on. Which are the really important questions, aren’t they? [3]

So we get to the mental filing cabinets. The mental filing cabinets are full of loose sheets of scraps of paper, all in really messy folders, some folded up badly, with binders in poor conditions and so on. On these loose papers are beliefs and concerns and thoughts and worries and ideas. And the frustrating thing about life is having to go through all these filing cabinets to figure out how to deal with a particular situation or circumstance. Most of the time we don’t do it. Most of the time we just use the general habits and heuristics that are available to us. Which can be wasteful, because there’s a lot of accumulated knowledge and wisdom in those filing cabinets. They’re just hard to navigate.

There exists a hypothetical reality for an individual– and I believe this to be true, because I believe that the best people I know must necessarily do this– where their filing cabinets are entirely in order, very well indexed and very searchable– and the most useful and important things in these cabinets are duplicated and summarized and told in simple, memorable, sticky stories. So very little time needs to be spent consulting. There’s a simple heuristic or set of heuristics that adequately captures the richness of most of the cabinets, if not all of them. This is one of my central challenges in doing these vomits– I’m sort of going through my mind’s filing cabinets and pulling out many, many papers. The end goal I suspect is to get rid of the cabinets altogether. To take the best things out, and to be able to piece together anything that’s missing just by sorta reading the tea leaves.

So what is the state of my mental filing cabinets? It’s a fucking mess, I can tell you. All these books and relationships and people and ideas and perspectives and hopes and dreams and worries and anxieties and guilt and confusion and mess. It’s really inelegant and messy. And I know wanting everything to be perfectly elegant is itself a sort of neurosis, but that’s like… you know. If you walk into the room inside my head, it’s a hideous mess. Everything is all over the place. And while nothing will ever be perfectly pristine, I could surely have SOME semblance of order.

I suppose the question I need to ask next is– well, what does some semblance of order look like? What are the things I’d like to retrieve really quickly? The first things that come to my mind: I need to have my blood sugar and meatbag management details in order, simply and easily. I need to recognize when I make certain decisions over and over and over again, and I need to “bump those up” in priority. I think the brain naturally does this when you’re faced with the same situation over and over again, but it feels like the natural approach takes a little too long. I don’t want to pick up smoking and quit another 20 times in my life. I’d like to never have to grapple with it again. And to do that I need to pre-empt that I’m going to thinking about picking up smoking again at some point in the future, and I should write myself an easy-to-access letter about it in advance. And I should have a reminder to myself that I have this easy-to-access letter at my fingertips. I think that should work.

So what are the letters? I also need to know how to think about my fitness, how to think about my diet. I shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel over and over again (which is what I have been doing with some of these vomits– the idea being that it’s better to repeat things than to have said them once in the past and then forgotten about them). So I’m in the repetition stage. I’m doing things over and over so the neural patterns become stronger, or something like that. And then when I’m ready, I can pull those papers out and burn the filing cabinets, and then have a nice prim and proper folder that applies in most if not all situations. It will be a huge weight off my mind. And I need to meditate regularly too so I know what’s actually important and what’s not. I don’t need to keep holding on to everything all the time. That’s painfully tiring.


[1] Is there a single word that adequately captures all of this? “Philosophy” and “systems thinking” feel too academic. We’re talking about practical know-how. The art and science of taking action. I’m tempted to say “of living”, but I think the conversation we were having was focused more on doing and less on being.

[2] (without worrying too much about ultra-extreme cases like the big bang, where it’s alright to say “we don’t really know what happened before this… but there are some really smart people working on the problem and they may find out some interesting things that have crazy implications for the rest of us. We wish them the best of luck and will be delighted to hear what they learn, but in the meantime we’re going to choose not to worry too much about it.”)

[3] Maybe not, actually. There’s an alternate perspective that makes a lot of sense as well. To not worry so much. To let go of all anxiety and just calmly be. And in being, find that there’s no fear, no worry, no anxiety, and you just be. And you live your life in peace and harmony. I think that’s an important thing to hold in mind. I think it’s also a way of being that ideally we should be able to reach through multiple different paths. I believe that when I learn to properly make practical decisions, I’ll be able to just calmly be. But maybe I’ve got the causality reversed on that. So that’s something to keep in mind.

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