How To Get a Good Idea, Part I

By | May 19, 2005

Reading at the moment Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who mentions the trick German experimental physicist Heinz Maier-Leibnitz used to do in boring conferences to entertain himself and to measure the lengths of his trains of thought — microflows, in Csikszentmihalyi’s words. The passage is conveyed in full here:

Professor Heinz Maier-Leibnitz, a German experimental physicist, suffers from an occupational handicap common to academics: having to sit through endless, often boring, conferences. To alleviate this burden, he invented a private activity that provides just enough challenges for him not to be completely bored during a dull lecture, but is so automated that it leaves enough attention free so that if something interesting is being said, it will register his awareness. What he does is this: whenever a speaker begins to get tedious, he starts to tap his right thumb once, then the third finger of the right hand, then the index finger, then the fourth finger, then the third finger again, and then the little finger of the right hand. Then he moves to the left hand and taps the little finger, the middle finger, the fourth finger, the index, and the middle finger again, and ends with the thumb on the left hand. Then the right hand reverses the sequence of the tapping, followed by the reverse of the left hand’s sequence. It turns out that by introducing full and half stops at regular intervals, there are 888 combinations one can move through without repeating the same pattern (Csikszentmilhalyi 1990).

The point about this is it’s not so much a game as a way of measuring the length of each microflow — a train of thought that takes a short journey, while being vaguely aware of what else is going on. Csikszentmilhalyi was able to use his finger tapping technique to measure precisely the length of each microflow.

Reading this it occurred to me that many of us do our best thinking stuck in boring meetings, services, concerts, films or seminars. The mind, trapped inside an immobile body, escapes on all these little excursions, returning with all sorts of insights. So why not make more of this?

Why not set up deliberately boring concerts, conferences, speeches, plays, operas and monologues so people looking for a place to ‘microflow’ can find a sanctuary? You could even charge them money. Or, if you’re someone looking for microflow yourself, you could scour the local whats-on pages for boring events which you could attend, confident you’d find a bit of peace and boredom to allow your mind to wander around in. One could even start listing such events on or somesuch, encouraging others to seek a piece of ‘microflow space’.

The other thought I had about this is that when conference blogging takes place, does this remove the opportunity for wandering minds and microflow? Do the bloggers, connected in their own Wi-Fi world, then just create an alternative social space, removing the conditions that might have led each of them to great internal intellectual feats? Or does the very fact that bloggers are at the conference mean it’s unlikely to qualify as boring anyway?

3 thoughts on “How To Get a Good Idea, Part I

  1. Continuing Story

    Several of Brian Eno’s albums, starting with “Thursday Afternoon” in 1985, are subtitled “Thinking Music.” They’re very light ambient music intended to be played in the background while you focus on something else.

  2. JW

    On Brian Eno, good point. I’ve got all his ambient stuff on a loop which I play when I’m writing. I also love Thom Brennan’s stuff (

  3. elzr

    What I don’t get, though, is *how* to actually play the game, I can follow the step-by-step instructions but I don’t get how to generate the variations… any help?


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