Rent Free In Your Head

Nov, 11 2020
4 Minutes

In recent years, the term "living rent free in your head" has gained popularity.

We hear it in the terms of psychological warfare - Joel Embiid lives rent free in Andre Drummond's head, AOC lives rent free at Fox News.

But it applies to other concepts as well. Your parents' nagging can live rent free in your head. Your co-workers' low quality work can live rent free in your head. Your roommates who never clean the dishes might be living rent free in your head (and possibly living rent free in your apartment as well).

The fact remains that there are objects of fixation that our minds just simply cannot shake. Some of them represent mundane items left undone - paying your taxes, getting your car serviced. Some of them represent larger projects - getting a new job, getting new roommates. Others are labels you develop - James Harden has a reputation for coming up short in the playoffs (sigh). And yet, others are omnipresent and unchangeable - for example, issues of race and gender.

How do you handle with these thoughts that live rent free in your mind?

Tiny Progress

The best thing you can probably do for any of these task based issues is to make tiny progress.

If your brain is dedicating background resources to a task that you need to address, then the best thing you can do for your mind is to make tiny progress. Sometimes, this means just writing it down in a task manager, but getting it off your mind is crucial

But other times, you need to do much more. I find it's helpful to write a little blurb in my task manager about the immediate next steps. When I pick up the task, I can see the metawork that I've done, and jump on it right away.

This will work effectively for tasks, and even larger projects like finding a new job.

But not all things can be "dealt" with.

Ignore It

Ignorance is bliss and when it comes to certain issues, it might be useful for a period of time to straight up ignore them.

In many ways, this is compartmentalization, achieving focus by ignoring other things.

When you're at work, you want to focus on your work, which means you need to ignore family, friends, and hobbies for a while.

When you're meditating, you're doing nothing. You're ignoring everything.

Mastering the ability to ignore aspects of your life for a duration of time is a very powerful skill. That said, I don't think it's a long term solution. Those thoughts that live rent free in your mind will come back.

One super powerful hack to this, I've found, is group singing. When I was in college, I joined a choir. Having had no previous singing experience, I found it absolutely profound how singing in a group of people could take my mind off everything else. Group chanting, I've heard, produces a similar effect. There's something extremely powerful about human voices in unison that allows us to ignore problems.


If every single day, you feel like the work you do is supporting a business that you hate, then you've let a vampire into your life. This arrangement will drain you of vital energy.

The only long term solution is to make changes such that you're "back in alignment". Chiropractors often speak of the body's natural ability to heal once your spin is in proper alignment. Similarly, life is much better when everything you do is in alignment with your value system.

That said, identifying your value system and making choices against that is a very difficult task. Most people don't even know what things matter to them, thus they take generic advice from other people.

Applying the scientific method is useful here:

  • Ask a question
  • Generate a hypothesis
  • Make a prediction
  • Experiment to support or invalidate the hypothesis

Here's an example. Let's say you're taking a new job, and you're someone who has recently become conscious of how race affects your comfort level at work.

  • Question: "Does having a critical mass of people of my race and gender in leadership positions affect my performance at work?"
  • Hypothesis: "Having a critical mass of people of my race and gender in leadership positions will improve my performance"
  • Predictions: "I will have more and better chances at networking", "My salary will increase at a faster rate"
  • Experiment: Obtain a job/internship/contractor role with a company that has these leadership characteristics. Evaluate in 3-12 months.

If you found supporting evidence for this hypothesis, then you have a very useful clue in determining your value system. If you found contradictory evidence, then you might have developed an intuition of where to start looking next.

To align ourselves with our values, we must first uncover those values. To do so, experimentation is key.


Things that live rent free in your head are a huge drain on your livelihood. Minimizing them allows us to live better.

To recap, here are some strategies you can apply:

  • Make tiny progress to tame stress
  • Ignore items to minimize their power
  • Align yourself with your values via experimentation

I'm sure there are way more strategies, but I'll write more about them as I come up with them and try them out. For now, I hope these are a helpful start.