Too Many Thoughts Living Rent-Free In Your Head? Try Mind Gardening

Illustrated by Charlotte Leadley.
People have been describing thoughts, images and ideas as "living in their head rent-free" for years now. Urban Dictionary (the font of all knowledge) first published the phrase back in 2017, though it really took on a life of its own in 2018. The phrase became shorthand for the unprompted or uninvited trivia your brain stores – like the Just Eat song consistently playing in the background of your thoughts, or the fact that you can recall your first crush's home phone number but not what you had for lunch yesterday. The use of the phrase articulates a real phenomenon that we are always – passively – absorbing and retaining information. A lot of the thoughts and ideas that populate our head is stuff that doesn't pay rent, and probably doesn't deserve to be there.
Sometimes the things that accidentally stick in our brain are welcome. I often blow my own mind by reminding myself that Cleopatra lived nearer the time when the first iPhone was developed than the time when the pyramids were built (I KNOW). But more often than not, these sticky thoughts are unwelcome and mysterious in how they got there. It can make you feel like your mind is a cluttered, crowded place, full of images, objects and ideas you didn't choose to bring in.
This is why the concept of "mind gardening" is so refreshing. It takes the idea of gardening (planting, cultivating, nurturing and pruning) and applies it to the web of thoughts that cloud your brain. It's not just that mind gardening sweeps out the cobwebs (though that can be a great side effect); it's a whole new way to think about knowledge, creativity and how we learn. Instead of passively absorbing random pieces of information while scrolling online, you can make your mind a place that you've cultivated based on what you're actually interested in.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff is the CEO of Ness Labs, a learning platform dedicated to mindful productivity. She has long been a proponent of mind gardening as a way to embrace creativity and soothe an overworked mind. We asked her to explain what it is, why it works and how to use the technique without it feeling like homework.
What is mind gardening?
Mind gardening is a proactive way of cultivating knowledge, ideas and thinking in general. It's very different from passive consumption – it's like a proactive creation.
Instead of just passively reading content, when you're mind gardening you come across an idea or a thought which you treat like a seed. You plant it by making a note of it either physically or digitally. The cultivation comes in when you look for connections between your thoughts or seeds – as they grow they branch out and form unexpected connections. This is then harvested as new thoughts, new ideas, new content or just a great conversation with friends.
There's really a creation aspect, which you don't really have with passively scrolling on social media.
Where did the concept originate?
For me, I started thinking about these topics when I realised that I was having a very unhealthy relationship with the internet in general and social media in particular, where I felt like I was consuming much more than I was creating. I have a few friends who really got into gardening in the past couple of years. Looking at them really investing and growing their actual physical garden made me think that it may be possible to apply a similar approach to our knowledge. And we have this expression in French called "cultiver son jardin intérieur" which roughly translates to "cultivating your internal garden". This is when it clicked for me. I figured that there are so many things that we can borrow from actual gardening and apply to cultivating what's in our mind.
Why is it having a surge in popularity?
I think people want to reclaim more control over the way they use their time and the way they use their mind. We've seen lots of people going through burnout for example. Even the fact that doomscrolling was one of the main terms invented in 2020 shows that people are really struggling when it comes to their relationship with the internet. More and more people are curious about mind gardening because it is giving them an option to shift in mindset when it comes to their relationship with the internet. And cultivating your knowledge, creating, whether it is writing or having more interesting conversations, is a very fulfilling goal to have. I think that's partly why we stretch ourselves too far when it comes to lack of control with the way we engage with the internet. Now people are trying to find ways to balance that relationship a bit more.
Why is that active attention important?
It reminds me of when people say that there are ideas that live rent-free in their heads. Basically, mind gardening is the opposite – you're removing all of the weeds, you're only keeping in there what makes you feel happier and more fulfilled, more creative, more knowledgeable, etc. It's like making sure your ideas are welcome tenants instead.
How does mind gardening affect your memory, if at all?
I absolutely don't want to make claims as to whether it changes the makeup of your memory. However a lot of mind gardening actually happens through writing, taking notes etc. And it has been shown that actually writing stuff down and engaging with it helps you both understand and remember stuff better. It's called the generation effect. There are research papers showing that by creating your own version of a piece of information, you will understand and remember it better.
This sounds a lot like studying (which might put people off).
Something I think traditional education is not doing very well is that they basically teach kids that you need to learn in order to build a career and apply it when you become an adult. There's this very transactional approach to learning. But I think a lot more people are starting to embrace lifelong learning – a way of learning that is more playful, that is driven by curiosity rather than a strict goal of improving your career, and that is more exploratory. You can start reading about a topic without really knowing what you're going to discover or how you're going to use it. But you're learning for the sake of learning, which is beautiful and it's amazing.
How does the digital version of mind gardening play into this?
As I explained, mind gardening can be practised in any way you find more enjoyable and practical but there are new digital tools that are making it easier. There is, for example, the tool called Roam Research. It makes it really easy to add new ideas to it, to connect your new ideas to past ideas, and to explore your mind garden by navigating these connections. It's a completely different approach to taking notes than the old version that we had, the technical version, where you have to have an idea and you have to know exactly where you should put it, in which folder. With these new apps for mind gardening, you don't need to know where this is going to go, you don't need to know where you're going and your own learning and discovery journey. You can chart the process of mind gardening for these connections to form and to appear and become more evident over time.
So even if it feels like effort at first, it quickly becomes a natural part of your life?
Absolutely, it's like everything. You start seeing compound interest in your thoughts when you invest in them, when you invest in your ideas and thinking, when you invest in your curiosity. It's the same as lots of beneficial habits. It sometimes takes a little bit of time at the beginning to get into it, to make it part of your routine. But once you've managed to do that, you are usually feeling more fulfilled, like you know more, you're really happy that you got started in the first place.

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