A Technique for Thinking About Things

09Apr12

Good thinking should be structured, particularly in the sense of applying previous learning.  It should also be unstructured, to the extent that you want to apply your own creativity and take account of your unique circumstances.

I used to use lists to help me think.  For example, people often advise writing down the pluses of an idea in one column, and the minuses in another, and then comparing the columns.  That approach can be useful.  Sometimes an approach like that is even essential.

But I found that lists were not very helpful for most problems.  An item on a list can quickly come to represent a whole bundle of interwoven thoughts.  Writing them out can be slow, and the process of writing and getting distracted by some could cause me to forget other vague, flash thoughts that might have been useful.

What I have found more helpful, for some projects, is to dictate my thoughts into a recording device.  It can be a computer with a microphone, or it can be a cell phone, a handheld recorder, or even a cassette recorder, though the digital devices are better.  Dictating is fast, so that you can do a better job of keeping up with the thoughts that come to mind.  You can save each distinct thought into a separate recording, so as to delete one while keeping the others.  If you know how to use a sound editor like Audacity, you can also use this approach to break a lecture or other long audio presentation into bite-sized pieces for discrete inquiry.

Just the act of dictating thoughts tends to clear the decks for more thinking.  I have had an idea hang on my mind for the longest time; but then, as soon as I actually put it into words, suddenly I realize there’s a problem with it, or there’s an even better variation, or there’s much more to say about it than I realized.  It can be helpful to divide your dictation into different kinds of thoughts – some, of a more reflective nature, that go on at some length, and others, shorter and more to the point, suggesting a specific thing to investigate or consider further.  Some may need to be shelved; others may demand immediate attention.

Dictating can be especially helpful for working through complex issues, emotionally distressing experiences, and other situations that would just overload a list approach.  You start in, dictating your thoughts as you get into the thing, and to some extent you may find that you can actually keep up with the many thoughts that you are going to want to think about later.

The second step is to process those recordings.  The digital recordings are better because you can listen to and sort them on your computer (after copying from your handheld device, if that’s where they originated).  You will want a playback tool that lets you move quickly among recordings, delete unwanted ones, and otherwise handle them as easily as possible.  I use IrfanView.

So now, instead of a list of items that may not remind you of all the dimensions of the issue, you have set of recordings.  It may develop that a lot of them focus on a particular concern that you didn’t quite realize was bothering you so much.  And if you get interrupted, you can come back to the thing tomorrow, or a month from now, and pretty much pick up where you left off, especially if you have dictated enough thoughts to capture the basic situation.

One way to process the recordings is to keep your microphone or handheld recorder ready as you play back, on the computer, something that you have dictated.  (At first, the sound of your own voice may be distracting, but that usually seems to go away as you get more focused on the issues.)  You listen to one entry, and it provokes additional thoughts.  You record your new thoughts, maybe delete the original entry, and repeat the cycle.  Before long, some parts of the problem are completely hashed out and you really don’t see much more to say about them, and meanwhile new things have come to mind.

You don’t actually need a computer to do the processing.  You can play back the contents of recorder A while dictating reactions on recorder B, until you have worked through everything on recorder A; and then you can do the reverse, listening through the items on recorder B and dictating further notes on recorder A.  (You may even be able to do it all on one handheld device, if its controls allow for really fast switching between what you are listening to and what you are recording about it.)  Eventually, this may boil down to a set of items that you don’t want to delete, yet, because they remind you of further steps to take.

This technique may not work well for people who talk on and on.  It may not work for people who fall asleep or get bored or just don’t learn well through an auditory approach.  It may not be the best approach for problems that do require a highly structured focus on a specific list of issues.  But it can be a very useful problemsolving tool for many other situations.

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