Mental Real Estate

There’s a decent amount of evidence that geolocation—where we are any any given moment, physically—influences our state of mind.

Our location in space can also stimulate our capacity to remember things. This effect is so potent that many champion memorizers utilize some variation of the “memory palace” technique, which typically involves walking through an imaginary version of a familiar space, placing the things they need to remember within that explorable context as if they were physical objects.

I find that the metaphor of brain-based physical space can be extended even further to help me prime my thinking for various tasks, patterns, and rhythms.

My approach to this is less literal than the approach utilized by memory champions: I basically tell myself that I’m moving to a different room in my mental mansion, so it’s time to shift gears and tweak cognitive cadence.

Sometimes merely telling myself that it’s time to approach things from another angle is enough to nudge me into a new mindset, but I also find I can trigger such shifts using some kind of a physical representation of where I’d like to go next.

Donning workout clothes helps me move into a more physically conscious state; performing a few quick stretches and sitting crossed-legged on the floor nudges me into a calmer, meditative posture; setting a timer for 20-minutes primes me to tackle intellectually expensive work that will require intense and draining focus.

Each of these actions triggers a shift from one imaginary room to the next.

Using the metaphor of mental real estate also helps me string together behaviors and rituals so that they become habits.

I may eventually learn, for instance, that a period of hard work will be followed by a period of calm, cognitive unclenching. A meandering, meditative walk will generally be followed by a period of note-taking and planning, which then typically segues into a span of focused work.

Each of these habit-chains are made up of modular pieces that can be broken apart and sprinkled throughout any type of day—filling in gaps and taking new shapes, as necessary. And they can and arguably should be reworked, iterated, and replaced over time: there’s little point in sticking to just a handful of rooms in your mental mansion, when there are an infinite number of other rooms to discover and explore.

Thinking in these terms can make such shifts and adjustments more fluid, though, and can help a sometimes frazzled mind find firmer footing in whichever room or rooms warrant regular, and perhaps more thorough, exploration.

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