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De-Construct This: Popcorn Brain and the Pick One Strategy

November 4, 2012

[Part of my mission here at Life De-Constructed is to break down the shit that gets in the way of living huge in our life. The “De-Construct This” posts are where I give insight and strategies for doing just that—usually inspired from the everyday, real-life happenings of yours truly.]

True confession: I’m an idea junkie.

I categorically and undeniably love them. They invigorate, delight, thrill, and fascinate me. Sometimes, they blow me away with their audacity. Ideas are the rocket fuel for my creativity, and if I could marry them … well I’d consider it anyway.

On any given day, I have tons of ideas. I don’t know an exact number, but it’s a lot. And having that many ideas in my brain—all fighting for space and attention—tends to cause an affliction I call popcorn brain.

Do you remember the old-fashioned way of making popcorn? A pot, oil, kernels … heat the oil in the skillet, add the kernels, and then POP! The kernels become stimulated, popping all over the place, and pretty soon the entire pot is full of fluffy, white, crunchy goodness. (Mmm, yummy. That kind of popcorn totally kicks microwave-popcorn’s ass. But I digress.)

Popcorn brain works kind of like that. The ideas are like the popcorn kernels, and when they get heated up (by some stellar brain-power I might add), they POP into an idea. Then more pop. And some more. And a few more after that. And every time an idea is popped in my brain, I get a jolt of energy—some sort of feel-good-stuff (dopamine maybe?) starts coursing through me, and I am MO-TI-VATED to get moving and start creating all kinds of new deliciousness in my life, my work, or whatever it is that is my latest muse.

Sounds good, right? Usually it is. Except when there are so many ideas firing away that I get over-stimulated and can’t focus on anything. That’s the affliction part. Maybe some of you can relate.

Over the course of my life, I’ve developed a coping mechanism for popcorn brain—which is basically just me getting the ideas out of my head. Whenever I have an idea, or cross paths with something brilliant out in the world that inspires me, I use whatever means is closest at hand to capture it: Post-It notes, my smartphone camera, the back of a piece of junk mail, an email to myself, repeating it over and over again hoping that it will somehow stick in my long-term memory … you get the idea.

Most days, this is enough. I’ve convinced myself that as long as I snag the really good ones, my brain can relax, and I can get back to manifesting these ideas into tangible things. Ah, yes. Productivity.

But sometimes this method doesn’t work … writing it down does not alleviate the popcorn brain symptoms, and I still have an unfocused, crazed energy that I can’t seem to corral. I have so many ideas, so many things to accomplish, not enough time, and I am totally overwhelmed with where to start. Eeek! Now what?!

Usually when this happens, I employ some kind of avoidance tactic in an effort to find a way to calm my brain. Most of the time it involves some kind of time-suck, mind-numbing activity that has absolutely nothing to do with anything I’d like to do or want to get done. (Trashy reality show marathon anyone? Any takers for a nap?)  Obviously, this doesn’t help anything. I know this. It’s merely a coping mechanism for my coping mechanism.

And it’s certainly not living huge in my life.

In recent weeks I have found myself swirling in this unfocused/crazed energy place a lot. And frankly, I am tired of my default response to it. So I have decided to kick my usual antics to the curb, and as of this week, I am undertaking a new strategy for times like this: it’s called Pick One. (Hat tip to my big sis for the help on this one.)

Pick One is entirely uncomplicated and is exactly what its name implies. All you do is pick one idea. Don’t try to prioritize or choose the perfect one … JUST PICK ONE! Pick an idea and focus solely on that one thing. Let the rest fall to the wayside (or, write them on a sticky note to remember later), and follow the one you chose to completion. Whatever completion may be—it may be a tangible thing or accomplishment, or it may be the idea fizzling out because you’ve discovered it’s not viable or what you actually want. And that’s okay. Just complete and move on to the next one. Pick another idea, repeat the process. And keep repeating, taking the ideas one at a time, until the popcorn brain subsides.

It will. I promise.

Kind of genius, huh? Okay, maybe for a lot of you it’s kind of the obvious answer. But for people like me, who get paralyzed by the overwhelm of too many ideas/choices/options (seriously, have you been down the toothpaste aisle recently?), Pick One works some brain drain-o magic by getting things moving and into action again.

Because, when you grab hold of one thing and focus your complete attention on it, you automatically plug-in to the present moment. Your awareness becomes centered on the here and now, and the only thing that needs attention is right in front of you. Taking action becomes easy, because you laser in on what can be done right now and channel your energy accordingly. Then, as you complete one thing—and a second, a third, and more—your brain starts to un-cramp, the idea vortex subsides, and you start to feel pretty good because you are making forward progress. In this case, slow and steady are the heroes of the day.

So the next time you find yourself in the throes of popcorn brain, take a deep breath and—

Just. Pick. One.

If you have any of your own suggestions on how to combat popcorn brain, leave them in the comments below. I’d love to hear them!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2013 1:41 am

    I find myself getting overwhelmed with great ideas – my equivalent of popcorn brain – when I’m avoiding doing something I dread (like taxes or getting my website up). Even mediocre ideas, like cleaning my garage, seem more appealing and get pulled into the great-idea vortex, when I’m procrastinating. If I just pick one, I’ll pick anything…other than what might relieve my anxiety. Any thoughts?

    • January 24, 2013 12:10 pm

      I completely hear your comment, Amy! That is another side of popcorn brain for sure. For me, I usually procrastinate or avoid because it’s “hard.” And that reasoning is just not acceptable…because the voice telling me it’s “hard” (and that cleaning the garage is way more fun) is actually the voice of my inner gremlin (a.k.a. my saboteur), not MY voice. Our gremlins want us to believe that we should only do things that are “easy.” But, believe it or not, “hard” is listening to our gremlin voice and NOT doing what needs to get done! Not doing it is what causes the anxiety, discomfort, and swirling.

      So in those instances, you’re talking about, it’s time to do some hardcore gremlin management. Get tough and call B.S. on whatever it is your saboteur voice is telling you about what you’re procrastinating on or avoiding. And then, DO it, no matter how unpleasant the idea of it is. That’s another trick of our gremlins – they tend to blow things up in our brains (e.g. it’s too hard, it will take too much time, I don’t know how to do it, etc.), making the idea of the task seem much bigger than it actually is. Usually you’ll find when you get into action, it’s not nearly as bad as the thought of doing it was. Good luck!

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