The Basic Solution for Blankness

Thinking Tools

In Tap Your Own Brilliance, I teach in-depth tactics for dealing with the three most common thinking obstacles: overload, blankness, and floundering. But sometimes you need only the basic solution.

The basic solution for overload is to get ideas out of your head onto paper.

The basic solution for floundering is to clarify your goal.

The basic solution for blankness is to warm up your mental databanks, i.e., the relevant context of knowledge.

This last may seem obvious, but it is worth explaining a bit more.

What blankness is

Blankness is a moment of mental paralysis. You have asked yourself a question and you’ve gotten absolutely nothing in response. It happens most often when you are starting a task. For example, one time I had a mind freeze when I sat down to write a “president’s letter” for a club I was leading. I “knew” everything that needed to go in the letter, but I couldn’t think of one single idea. There was silence in my head when I asked myself what to write.

Blankness is always surprising when it occurs in response to your questions to yourself, especially if you are sure you know the answers. It can be humbling to realize you have less direct control over your mind than you expected.

Of course, sometimes you’re blank because you are truly ignorant. But if you generated the question, and you think you ought to know the answer, your blankness is temporary. It’s not that you don’t have any answers, it’s that you haven’t triggered them.

In my case, I was blank because I’d been out of town for a week, on a semi-vacation, not thinking about the organization or my letter. My responsibilities as president had been the farthest thing from my mind. I needed a way to get them back in my mind.

What to do

To get those things you know back into mind, you need to warm up the context.

The information you want is stored in your subconscious memory banks with connections to other information. This is its “context.”

Those connections could be causal, logical, or associational. Nothing can get stored in the subconscious except by being in relation to something else. Whatever is in conscious awareness together — including whatever is in focal awareness or the fringes — gets connected together in one’s memory banks at least a bit.

The strongest connections are logical connections and causal connections to your values, because these get special attention and repetition even without deliberately attempting to memorize them. That is why we ask logical and causal questions to pull up information we want to access. The top six are Kipling’s “honest serving-men”:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Recall is a process of asking questions to trigger information on a particular topic. If one doesn’t work, try another. Any logical question that you think will connect to the material you want will help.

Here are some questions I might have asked myself:

  • What are the next club events?
  • Why do I want to write a letter?
  • When did I last do something with the club?
  • How is the club doing?
  • Where do they get information?
  • Who has been helping out?

Any of these would have started the information flowing. It doesn’t matter how exactly you warm up the relevant content. What matters is that you reinforce your sense that you know a lot. You do that by activating some information related to whatever it is you want to remember.

Once some related information is activated, it’s easier to answer direct questions.

What not to do

What you shouldn’t do is criticize yourself for being blank!

The need to warm up a context is a real psychological phenomenon. Everyone goes blank sometimes. All it means is that you haven’t been thinking about the topic you are being asked about.

Sometimes people criticize themselves for not knowing the answer right away. Maybe they are embarrassed that it takes themselves a minute to collect their thoughts. Or they call themselves “dumb” for not remembering right away. Or they jump to the conclusion that they’re ignorant — and leave that first “I don’t know” as their only answer. They never realize that they do know or that, given half a chance, they could figure it out.

Self-criticism is both unfair and impractical. Instead of warming up relevant information, it distracts you from the topic by triggering self-doubt.

You have only indirect control over recall. You can influence what occurs to you in the next two seconds by turning your attention to a topic or question. But what exactly occurs to you at this moment is a complex result of your values, your knowledge, and your skills.

So, next time you are tempted to criticize yourself for going blank, exert your direct control over your attention. Instead of turning inward to why you don’t have an answer, turn outward to the issue. Ask yourself a general question or two to help warm up the context. Make them easy peasy, and with an answer or two, you will start the mental gears turning. You will regain your confidence that you know a lot, and that your blankness is only temporary.

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