The Shoebox Protocol
by Dan Walsh
Results From a 30 Day Mental Cleanse.
My 30-day shoebox experiment ended on December 10th. This post has been in limbo since that day. The unexpected luxury of this delay is that I’ve had almost 4 weeks to contemplate my little experiment and the ripples it created in my head. In short, throwing all the ideas that suck up my cognitive bandwidth into a shoebox and forgetting about them for a month was a liberating experience.
I expected to tear open that box after 30 days and dump out all my long lost treasures. But by the end, I didn’t really care what was in there. Even now, over a month later, I still haven’t riffled through it. The physical act of writing down and boxing up these projects and ideas helped take them off my mind. And now that my mental and emotional ties have been severed, I feel liberated from the obligations placed on me by my former self.
Here’s how it all went down and the specific lessons I learned.
The Shoebox Protocol
Very simply, the idea was to create a physical container where I could store my ideas and projects in physical form. I chose a shoebox for the container and notecards for my ideas. As new ideas popped into my head I wrote them individually on a notecard and put them in the box. I also put all of my old, “good ideas” on notecards and stored them in the box. I wasn’t allowed to riffle through the box during during the 30 day experiment. I only allowed one project to stay on my mind, and this was the big one I felt needed 100% of my attention.
Outcome 1: Mental Vacuum
As I emptied my mind, more ideas flowed in to take up the space. This was an interesting phenomenon and it made me wonder if my brain was “at capacity” in some way. Like I couldn’t fit more ideas until I took others out. However, this inflow of tangential ideas eventually slowed as more of my thoughts centered around my primary project. Now I have tons of ideas about my primary project.
Outcome 2: Curiosity and Ambition
I detected a pattern as all of these projects and ideas flowed in and out of my head. Some of these projects were curiosities and some of them contained ambition. The curious projects were motivated by discovery. I wanted to try them just to see what would happen. The ambitious projects were fueled by a specific outcome that I wanted to achieve. The curious projects could be satisfied just by doing them, even if the outcome was a dud. In contrast, the ambitious projects had some form of desired success attached.
Even more interesting, the curious projects could become ambitious projects. This was how I ended up juggling so many projects at once. I would “poke the box” with a curious project to see what would happen. This was usually as simple as following a train of thought like, “I wonder if a website exists for X”. Then if a site didn’t exist, I’d poke the box again to see if I could come up with a good url. If I did, this little seed of an idea would grow. Ambition for this little guy would creep in. Once it did, it became a project that I felt beholden to work on because I had quote-unquote, “found a good idea”. At least something that had potential to be a good idea. And for me, good ideas require attention.
Outcome 3: Less Stress
All of these unfinished projects were stress-causing open loops. Distancing myself from them helped me realize this. I also realized that the shear number of them caused an additional layer of stress. Specifically, every time I’d sit down to “work” I had to first remember everything that needed attention (a lot), prioritize the projects themselves, then remember and prioritize the specific tasks within those projects, and finally second-guess all of these decisions.
My workflow is much more streamlined and relaxing now. I’m also making better and faster progress because I’m not losing energy to the mental friction outlined above.
Outcome 4: More Relaxation
Speaking of less stress… By the rules of this experiment I couldn’t work on other projects. This meant that if I didn’t have anything to do for my primary project… then I didn’t have anything to do at all. In the past, I would have filled this time with other projects and never give my brain a chance to rest.
The brain needs a chance to recover from work just like the body needs time to heal after a tough workout.
Outcome 5: Fresh Insights
Despite my best efforts, some of my larger, former projects continued to pop in and out of my head. This was frustrating at first, but since they were safely packed away in a box it was easier to let them slide off my mind. This eventually caused enough mental distance to get some much-needed perspective. Which in turn helped me see all the simple solutions and paths forward that I’d previously missed because I was too engrossed in the project.
I also realized some of my “poke-the-box” projects had become tainted by ambition and were causing way too much stress. I released these projects into the wild by sharing them online. My secret hope is that someone capable will pick up the idea and run with it. Either way, they’re off my plate now.
This was a great exercise for me. So great that I’ve continued to collect all my loose ideas in a shoebox even though the experiment ended over a month ago. I feel focused, less stressed, and I’m more productive when I sit down to work. Overall, its a much better way me to operate.