Note: The “Sorting Myself Out” posts is a series exploring and implementing the ideas of Canadian psychologist Jordan B. Peterson on self improvement and living properly.
As a follow up to my last post regarding logos, here is another facet of words as a means of creation of order from chaos.
“Words, words, words.” – Hamlet
This is hopefully a short(er) post. What’s the difference between writing things down and merely using words to think? Well, memory is fallible and limited, and abstract thoughts are hard to hold in your head and even harder to work with. I would often read a proof, understand it once, and forget it the next second. I’ve also experienced those dreaded “thought loops” wherein I try to solve a problem, make some progress in my thinking, neglect to write it down, only to have the exact same thoughts again. That’s not very useful if we want to think about a problem beyond skimming the surface.
Writing serves as an external RAM. Research shows that the number of bits of information we can hold in our working memory is pretty low (7 plus or minus 2 is the standard refrain), but life is often more complex than that. You can write down very complicated things, go to sleep, come back and build on them. This way, not only can you remember your thoughts, you can also see the broader structure of your arguments. Stuck on a proof or an essay? Put pen to paper. Don’t worry about doing it right or how it looks; just write things that come to mind. Liberally use circles, arrows and exclamation marks. I know some people call this “brainstorming” or a “mind mapping”, but a lot of those people also tend to complicate the whole process with all sorts of techniques and rules (you can imagine how I feel about Cornell Notes, but I digress). As I see it, I’m just pouring my brain onto paper and modifying as the need arises. I don’t try to make it resemble a map. Sometimes it is, but it can turn out to have any or no format at all. If you’re at zero, your tendency is to be stuck at zero. If you’ve written things that are even tangentially related, you’re infinitely far from zero. Often, an essay just writes itself. Momentum is serious business. Write something down, and order will emerge from chaos.
Writing has some next level anxiety-reducing, dragon-slaying and chaos-banishing properties. I can’t explain it. I would go so far as to call it magical, but then again, maybe it’s no accident that logos is such an important aspect of creation. As some of you know, I want to get my Master’s degree in a couple of months. Over the past month or so, I lost some sleep catastrophizing over how insurmountable the whole thing appeared to me. On one sleepless night, enough was enough and I sketched out a quick flowchart of all the things that must happen along with a bunch of remarks. First of all, turns out there are 12 very well defined steps to my degree. Secondly, my anxiety evaporated. Just like that. Once I wrote it down it was immediately clear, and I just went about doing it. It happened so fast I kick myself for not having done this months ago.
And lastly, it’s just convenient. How long does it take me to pack for a long trip? Half an hour. How? I just write down my packing list. Every trip is different for sure, but not so different that I need a new list every trip. With this list, packing is just mechanical. Realistically, how long would it take for someone to knock off items on a page-long checklist? Not very. Before I had this list, every night before a long trip, I would mill about. Pack some things here, change my mind there. Get distracted and go on the internet (thanks ADHD). Ruminate about what I really need on the trip. It can take hours if I let it. This is one of the ways to stop thinking and start doing. Think once, use forever.
So without further ado, here are some of the things I write down aside from to-dos, plans, assignments, etc:
Progress bars. Jordan Peterson says, compare yourself to who you were yesterday. How do I know who I was yesterday? I can write it down. The one on top is a progress bar for my record for uninterrupted concentration. Pretty pitiful, I know, but I have increased it by about 10 minutes and that’s a huge win! If you want to never doubt whether or not your efforts are working, track it. It’s also great for self confidence. One does not just obtain self confidence without competence, as Dr. Peterson put it. But this way, you can track your victories as they happen, and when you have bad days, you never have spiral into an abyss of hopelessness. Evidence of your competence is written in ink and nothing can take that way from you. It’s a visceral reminder that the pain and futility you feel are temporary. Find some way to quantify it. For instance, this is how I quantify how much work I get done, not by number of chapters read, but by number of (hyper focused) hours worked:
As Cal Newport would say, things that get tracked, get done. The trick is not track how much you manage to accomplish but the measures you can control, like hours worked. After all, it’s hard to control how many thesis chapters you write in a week- that takes however long it takes and attempting to control that could lead to despair and self doubt. Keep score and struggle to keep the streak going. And here’s one that will make your life easier:
A checklist of things I need everyday so I never leave the house and have to go back. The weird thing is I almost never refer to it. Not long after I wrote it down, it was burned into my brain. It might be due to one of the benefits of handwriting, but I would say that since I’m very partial to handwriting. I think it’s underrated, anyway. Next, useful information I might need to reference:
A someday list, whether it’s entertainment, or learning martial arts, etc. Anything you can’t do now for some reason. I write it down so I won’t have to remember, and the next time I’m stuck for something to watch or read, I consult this list. Next time when I finish a major project, I immediately embark on another one. If I get over the idea entirely, no problem; I just cross it off. But at least having written it down, I can stop trying to remember it.
I would also recommend, as David Allen (Getting Things Done) suggests, keeping an inbox for tasks that come to your mind but you can’t immediately do or schedule. Personally, I give it a page in my notebook, and if it fills up, I start an “Inbox II” and note the page number in my table of contents. It gets rid of a ton of stress because you can stop thinking about the task. And the next time you make a schedule, you can fit it in. I would review the inbox nightly or weekly, however. An inbox that builds up is no good.
A vision of my personal heaven (so I never, ever forget- come to think of it, a vision of my personal hell might be in order):
To wrap in all up, I keep them in a single notebook that I take everywhere. It’s become my external brain and a roadmap for when I need to be reminded of my purpose. Hey, if I don’t know what to do, somebody (past me, actually) has a plan that is aimed at my highest good- all I have to do is act according to it. That’s quite comforting.
If you’re concerned about how long writing takes, that really depends on you. If all you’re using it for is task management and self management, 15 minutes a day is plenty. I do it at the end of my workday to prepare my mind for relaxing in the evening. That way, all my tasks are recorded. No more worrying about my thesis; it’s all been taken care of and planned for. All play, all the time from 6 PM onwards. If you’re someone like me who uses writing to think, then it doesn’t take additional time; you were going to use that time to think anyway. This might come as a surprise to many, but when used as an utility (like my journal above), writing doesn’t take that long. When used as an outlet, however, time flies when you write: you enter into a state of flow wherein the sense of meaning and purpose you experience is comparable to listening to a good symphony. So hopefully I made a good case for it: if you’re not writing much, try it! 🙂
If you’re interested in the ideas I mentioned above, check out:
- “12 Rules for Life” by Jordan Peterson (no surprise here)
- “Deep Work” by Cal Newport
- “Getting Things Done” by David Allen
And I highly recommend checking them out. There’s no way I’m doing them justice here, and knowing more about them helps implementation immensely.
Well. That ended up being quite long.