Review: Mind Management, Not Time Management by David Kadavy

Creative work requires sufficient quantity of quality ideas. We can maximize quality ideas by wisely stewarding our mental states: prompting the right state for our work and staying in that state as long as possible.

I finished this book a month ago. It at first left me thinking it was a bit too complicated: I thought the examples too anecdotal, the practices too extreme, and the systems too complex. However, after conversation about the topics and trying a few of the principles my impressions have changed. I’ve been chewing on a few of the ideas that have been helping me in my creative work so far.


Generative Thought and Insight

I found the discussion of how our brains generate and then verify insights fascinating. He uses a simple word game to show how our brains connect things seemingly simultaneously and without effort… which leads to two ideas:

  1. The mental state required for generating lots of connective insights is different from the state that can evaluate their worth and validate their truth. He notes that just after waking we are usually in a sort of sleep-inertia heavy state of free association. It is an effective time for generation. This leads to practices like morning pages, shower thoughts, etc.1
  2. Because the generating of insights is a seemingly magical thing that doesn't depend on intense focus and scrutiny, we need a different strategy for ensuring we are always generating new creative ideas.

Minimum Creative Dose and Incubation

While there is a lot of discussion of the importance of gathering good ideas (Steal Like an Artist by Auston Kleon) and preparation (The War of Art by Steven Pressfield) Kadavy introduces his helpful concept of the Minimum Creative Dose:

give your Passive Genius the Minimum Creative Dose. Jot down just a few things, make a sketch, or hum a few bars into a recorder. Set a timer for two minutes if it helps. Then, forget about it. Go about whatever you were doing.

Instead of banging your head against it, attempting to focus your way into a solution… give your brain something to chew on and explore, then let your “Passive Genius” work on it. I’ve tried this a few times through the past month and it’s been very profitable. It’s counterintuitive to setup a work project, write a few lines, then walk away, but some of my creative projects demand just that.

Open Loops for Creativity; Closed Loops for Productivity

This leads to the biggest concept from the book for me: the systems best suited to solve creative problems are philosophically different than traditional GTD-style productivity systems. GTD and its children recommend never losing track of tasks, burning it down, and working based on physical context. Creativity Systems (my phrase) require gathering good thoughts, making space for the Passive Genius for inspiration, and working based on mental state.

Open loops are your enemy when it comes to traditional productivity. Open loops remind you to do things that you can’t currently do. But when it comes to creative productivity, open loops are a gift. Open loops give your Passive Genius something to work with. The way to get the most out of Incubation, with minimal conscious effort, is by using the Minimum Creative Dose.

I have been thinking and writing a lot about Creativity Systems, so I could be guilty of fitting his arguments to my mental model, but it is encouraging to me.


Improbably Monastic

Many of the experiments are laughably impractical for anyone with family responsibilities. His preferred Deep Work style is what Cal Newport’s Deep Work by Cal Newport would probably deem monastic. While the journey is inspiring the experiments feel strict and prescriptive, overly complicated.

I respect that Kadavy can pull it off, but I think for most it is unrealistic. There's a lot of experiments to "put yourself in the correct mental state" for the work you wish to accomplish. I would like to be more intentional here, but not to the degree Mr. Kadavy has chosen.

No examples, personal journey

The book's structured resembles a personal memoir. Each chapter walks through his discoveries and deep personal loss. I think this structure logically walks through the the realizations and experiments that led to his current systems and theories. I also think it hurts the general applicability of the advice.

The examples are specific for David’s business: self-publishing, podcasting, blogging.2 There are few if any examples of other use cases or people. I would think that in the development of the book he’d look for studies and examples in his podcast guests at least.

His Inboxes are weird

This is a small quarrel. In the course of talking about the importance of capturing good ideas, he talks about sending quotes, ideas, and links into an inbox. I’m 100% in favor of quick capture, but he wrote on about how he stores things in the inbox long term, as a means of reviewing every once in a while to generate ideas.

I’m no GTD expert, and I think GTD needs to be modified for each, but I think he’s talking about a Tickler File, not an inbox. The inbox should be for things I’m not sure about that need a final home, not a storage facility. 🤷‍♂️

There is quite a bit more in the book I didn’t summarize. There is a fine refutation of the contemporary obsession on time-management, arguing that it's based in Taylorism theories of uncreative factory work. There’s a lot of discussion of his theory of the classes of work, experiments for placing yourself in the mental state for the work you wish to complete, and a fascinating exploration on how different cultures view time.

If any of this strikes a chord, or you are seeking some ideas to prompt a state of flow, or you just like reading about productivity styles (which if you've made it this far, is probably you!) check out Mind Management. It’s not the first book I would recommend for productivity or creativity, but it was just right for me and the work I’ve been struggling with.

My action items:

  • Tag my tasks based on required mental state. I’d like to experiment staying in a mental state for a long while.
  • Think about my Creative Cycles:
    • What creative projects do I repeat?
    • Incorporate Minimum Creative Dose and buffer for the Passive Genius (incubation)
    • What “Sloppy Operating Procedures” should I document?

  1. Balancing explore vs decide reminded me strongly of Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. 

  2. Writing a book about the experience and process of writing a book is very meta… an achievement, but also what I sarcastically refer to as an Incestuous MLM. Here's a different example: I'm so good at sales, I can teach you too. I primarily sell others my course on how to sell, and reference my sales numbers on how to sell to sell more people in how to sell. 🤷