musings of a Lispnik

Daniel Janus's blog

The immensely powerful tool

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A pen and a sheet of paper are simple utilities; but there lies vast and sheer power in them that I was not aware of. Up until now. So what can they be used for that one might possibly not realize?

Short answer: serializing the stream of consciousness.

Yes, it’s simple, and you may laugh at me now. I myself am a little amazed why I haven’t noticed this before. But this answer lends itself to another question: what good is this serialization, and what exactly do I mean by it, anyway? And the answer to that is a little longer. So here goes.

I’m one of the people who tend to have problems with concentrating when thinking, especially when thinking hard. This is not to say that I am not capable of thinking hard: I am, but doing so requires a level of concentration that is tricky for me to exert for a prolonged period. (Unless, of course, I am in the state of absolute fascination, where this is taken care of subconsciously. But that’s another story.) More often than not, a tough problem requiring a significant amount of work just has to be dealt with. And then things start to distract attention. There is an itch to scratch, thoughts are shreds, each one pertaining to a tiny bit of the problem, but intertwined with hundreds of other bits of other problems, forming a dense, tangled web, hard to navigate over, and jumping fast from one to another, it becomes more and more unclear what’s next.

So what can one do? One way is to grab a writing device and just start writing. Running text is linear in nature, so you end up traversing the thought graph depth-first and writing down each thought as you traverse its node. And what’s more, translating ideas to written language slows you down, which is a Good Thing because it makes you see your way through the graph more consciously. It might take you longer to walk from point A to point B than to drive there by car, but definitely you will see more of the landscape as you go. Arriving at the final destination, or simply putting down the pen because enough thoughts have been collected and serialized (there’s never really any end of the stream), makes you end up with a half-product: an unsmithed lump of ore out of which you can forge ingots.

But why a pen and paper, as opposed to, say, a text editor? I think any writing utensil would work to some extent, but for me this seems to be the best option, for several reasons. First of all, I can type on the keyboard much faster than I can write legibly by hand, so this further slows down the pace (which is a Good Thing as we have observed already).

Second, there is something magical in handwriting which a text editor will never be able to achieve: it’s hard to describe. But the net effect is a very evident focus on Here and Now, the pen moving across the paper, the sheet filling up with more and more lines of script. This environment is naturally single-tasked: no Alt-Tab to press to switch to another terminal, no blinking icon of an instant-messaging program (unless a phone happens to ring). This causes synergy with the concentration caused by serializing thoughts.

If you have never tried this approach, feel free to do so. Although I cannot guarantee it will work for you, it certainly does work for me.