Creative thought is one of the most important things in life. Writing helps me think, but I tend to lose good ideas in long notes. Instead of saving your writing in a note you'll never look at again, save just two or three words and delete the other thousand. I made a new writing tool, Thoughtwriter, to help.
Falling in love with (creative) thought
After a few years of solo meditation, I went on a 10-day, distraction-free meditation retreat. No conversation. No devices. Not even books to read or paper to write on. I'd hoped to improve my mental life, and just have an interesting experience. After all, I'd never done anything like this before. Cut off from everyone else in the world, would I be serene, or inconsolably lonely and internet-deprived?
Over those ten days, my time was split between rest and meditation. During rests, I'd just think about the ideas I'd had during meditation (there was nothing else to do, after all). Ironically, as I got better at letting go of thoughts in meditation, I got better at exploring them outside meditation. These thoughtful, multi-hour rests were like vials of universal acid - they burned through any problem I cared to consider.
But, this was a meditation retreat. Shouldn't I be thinking less, rather than more? After a while, I realized that repetitive, negative thoughts actually were playing a smaller role in my mental life. On the other hand, creative thoughts were starting to dominate my mind outside of meditation - which I quite liked.
Writing to think
The last day of the retreat, the silence was lifted. It was fun to talk with people again, but a haze of new thoughts started to distract my meditations and rests. It would be hard to keep my focus and creativity outside the retreat, it seemed.
Now at home, I'd think in bed and soon fall asleep. I'd think while walking, but lose focus as I avoided colliding with pedestrians and traffic. I'd think while writing... and actually have some success. I could stay focused for long periods now that I wasn't laying down or trying to navigate busy streets. I was again able to think creatively and explore an idea for hours.
After writing hundreds of thousands of words in this way, I've developed the following habits.
Write about everything
Almost anything can prompt me to write. Here are some examples:
- I feel stuck, upset, or confused.
- I need to solve some technical or life problem.
- I need to make some decision.
- I want to plan or review my day.
Delete (almost) everything
I care about solutions, not text. So, if I solve a problem, I'll delete everything I wrote and save my solution as a word or phrase in a separate list of ideas. In the past, I'd save the entire writing session, and end up losing the solution or idea in a thousand-word note that would take 20 minutes to read and review. I have 2000 completely-ignored notes in Evernote, for instance. It's a graveyard of good ideas.
Now, all my best ideas, decisions, and solutions are in a short list I can scan in seconds.
Write, save, and delete in short cycles
If I write thousands of words all at once, I find it difficult to sift through them for good ideas. That's why I limit my writing to just a few hundred words, save the good ideas, delete everything else, and then start over again.
When I write, I avoid getting stuck by asking myself questions or writing to a prompt like:
What are three things I can say about this? Even when you can't think of solutions, you can usually say a few things about what's bothering you.
What's the problem? My thoughts are often vague and fuzzy when I start writing. Clarifying the problem is a great first step that's surprisingly easy to forget.
Just write a stream of consciousness. When you're really distracted and confused, just write down all the words that are in your head. Don't worry about writing in full sentences or even staying on topic.
What are some potential solutions? This is ultimately what you care about, so try to come up with as many solutions as possible, rather than writing aimlessly or focusing too much on one potential solution.
Pretend you're interviewing yourself. It's amazing how the words start to flow when you play the role of a journalist or concerned friend, and ask all the obvious questions.
Interviewer: So, what's bothering you?
You: I don't know. I'm just worried.
Interviewer: How come?
You: My oxygen tank is running low, and I'm in space.
Time your writing
I like to start small when I write about something. I'll just set a timer for 5 minutes, and write a few sentences. This way, I don't pressure myself into thinking I have to write for hours to be useful. 15 minutes is often more than enough to improve my situation dramatically.
Once I get started writing, it's sometimes hard to stop. A timer also helps me limit my writing time if I have other things to focus on.
To make it easier to follow my own advice, I made Thoughtwriter, which:
- doesn't allow you to save notes (so you delete what you write)
- limits writing to 5000 characters / ~750 words (so you write & delete in short cycles)
- has prompts (to prevent you from getting stuck)
- has a built-in timer (to help you timebox your writing)
It's what I use to write every day, and I hope you'll find it useful too! You can try it at thoughtwriter.org.