Look for Long-Decay Ideas
In describing how he wrote the book, "Mind Wide Open", author Steven Johnson discusses a challenge we're all familiar with—deciding what ideas to focus on and which ones to ignore. He calls the method he came up with the "Long Decay Test." Named after sound waves that take a long time to trail off to silence, this is a useful framework we can all use to be more intentional about our precious mental resources get deployed.
We've all experienced flashes of insight, those when you stumble upon an idea, learn a new factoid, or discover an anecdote and it feels like something clicks. But often, only a day or two later, that lightbulb moment has faded to darkness.
Long decay ideas are different. They stick with us. They're the ideas that keep popping into our heads for days, weeks, or months after we've discovered them. Once a long-decay idea has entered our consciousness, we can't shake it. We immediately see the world differently. It comes up in conversations with friends. It has broad application across a number of difficult problems we’ve been grappling with. It makes a meaningful difference in how we engage with the world. Some part of your life that's previously been fuzzy snaps into sharp focus.
The Long Decay Test has particular salience in the information age. There was a time when ideas were hard to come by. Not so today. On the whole, the information revolution has been an overwhelming force for good. But nothing is a panacea. Prior to the internet, access to information may have been inconvenient. But in a sense, this inconvenience served as a useful constraint. Effort is, after all, a great filter for value.
Today, all of the world's information is at our fingertips. Every book, blog post, 24/7 news cycle, and social media network presents a steady stream of ideas to parse through. Fake news and opinions masquerading as facts are bad enough. But even if you manage to filter that shit out, you're still left with the challenge of separating good ideas from great ones. And with zero bounds on access to information, it's all too easy to fall into the trap of constantly skimming the surface, gaining a basic awareness of a wide breadth of topics, but never learning enough to actually put them into practice, let alone gain mastery.
None of this is to suggest that we should all become narrowly specialized; Specialization has its place, but for many of us, multidisciplinary thinking is a major source of leverage. However, there's a difference between constantly flitting around the edges of topics and proper multidisciplinary thinking—which is to say gaining mastery of the most important ideas from multiple fields. The Long Decay Test offers one tool to help us identify these most essential ideas.
In real-time, it can be hard to separate the most impactful ideas from their "short decay" counterparts. Both long and short decay ideas present a similar lightbulb flash at first. It's only once they've had a little time to percolate that the difference becomes obvious. The long vs short decay framing provides a useful tool for making this otherwise difficult distinction.
Experiment with Johnson's "Long Decay Test". Avoid the temptation to immediately jump all over that new idea for your blog. Pause before you ask your team to investigate the business idea you had on your drive home. Let that book you just finished reading sit for a week or two before you start processing notes. Give new ideas some time to breathe. See if they hang around for a bit. If so, that's probably a good signal that they're worth exploring further. If not, maybe it's best to move on.