Paul Gillin invited me to do an #infoboom tweetchat on the professional and personal value of blogging on March 3, 2011 (2pm-3pm EST). When I brainstormed some of the things I’d like to talk about, I ended up with a big list: not just the value I get from blogging, but also tips for how you can build that too. I hope you enjoy this blog series!
People often ask me: Why do you blog? Where do you find the time to do it? How can you find all these things to write about?
I tell people I don’t have the time to not blog. It’s a tremendously valuable practice. Life-changing, even. In this blog series, I’m going to explain how blogging helps me both personally and professionally, and I’m going to share tips on how you can get that kind of value too.
Part I: The Immediate Benefits of Thought
I write for selfish reasons, among which are the benefits of the process of writing. Even if no one read my blog, it would already be worth the time. Here are four ways to get immediate value from writing about life.
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
Joan Didion, author
Writing helps me think more clearly. When I struggled with homesickness and doubt, I wrote down what I was thinking, what I was afraid of, what I hoped for, and what I wanted to do. When I puzzled through a bug in my code, I wrote down the symptoms, the approaches I tried, and the solution I found. Writing forces me to slow down and find words to express myself. Strand by strand, I can untangle the mental mess and turn it into something coherent.
Tips: Next time you’re thinking about something complicated…
- Use mindmaps to write down key ideas in a loose structure. See if that helps you understand your reasons and your alternatives.
- Use lists, tables, and other idea organizers to think through a problem. For example, you might make a list of pros and cons for alternatives.
- Write your thoughts down in a journal (private, if necessary) so that you can take a step back and understand them.
- On presenting, anxiety, and moving forward
- On appearance and bias: thoughts from the Nerd Girls panel at Lotusphere 2011
- More reflections on code and consulting
The human mind has first to construct forms, independently, before we can find them in things.
Albert Einstein, physicist
When you can name a thing, you understand it better. If I spend an hour getting to the roots of my procrastination and realize that it’s because I don’t value the results enough, I can recognize that feeling when I encounter it in life, and I can do something about it. Writing helps me get a grip on strong emotions or confusing puzzles. Understanding something lets me work with it.
Reading voraciously helps me with writing and with life. Books and blog posts help me learn how other people describe their experiences and find words that resonate. Other people’s phrases and metaphors can be launching pads for your own.
Writing about life also helps me appreciate it better. When I write about the things that make me happy, I pay more attention to them in life, and grow even happier. When I write about things I can improve, I get better at recognizing opportunities to do so. Like the way that sewing helps me see clothes in a new light and woodworking teaches me more about furniture, writing helps me learn about life.
Tips: Next time you struggle to describe something…
- Give it a try, even if you don’t feel your description is adequate. You can go back and revise or build on your previous notes.
- Read what other people have shared and look for words or phrases that get you closer to the idea.
- Try a metaphor. Sometimes they can lead to surprising insights.
- Use writing to learn about life, and use life to improve your writing.
- Tweaking fun and nudging myself out of procrastination
- Fun and rational economic theory
- Momentum and holidays
Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.
The brain can hold only so much in thought at a time. It’s like a computer with limited memory. This limitation frustrates me. I might be thinking of interesting things while walking around or while doing dishes, but my mind flits from thing to thing without depth, and that the older thoughts fade quickly and are hard to recall.
Writing gets ideas and information out of my head. This external memory allows me to not only work with bigger things, but to work without the fear of forgetfulness or loss. This also allows me to “chunk”, improving both my memory and my ability to work with ideas. By moving complex ideas out of my head and into a form where I can get a handle on them, I can work with larger combinations. It’s like the way that a pianist playing from memory doesn’t think of individual notes but of patterns, and the way that chess grandmasters don’t think of individual pieces, but of configurations of attack and defense. Writing these detailed posts on the value of blogging allows me to use the high-level summaries as building blocks for other thoughts.
Tips: Next time you’re working with a large, complex idea…
- Write down parts of the idea, then summarize your thoughts and use the summaries to build the next level of thinking. Repeat as needed.
- Try using an outline to break the idea down into smaller ideas, and continue until you get to the level of detail you want.
- This series!
4. Reflection and improvement
There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge… observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination.
Denis Diderot, philosopher
Writing is a way of having a conversation with yourself. Through that conversation, you can look at what you’re doing, why you do it, and how you can do things better. You can talk about what you feel, why you feel it, and whether that helps or hinders you. This reflective practice helps you understand yourself better and improve the way you work and live.
I find it very useful to observe myself and ask questions. After giving a presentation, I think about how I did it and how I can improve. When feeling strong emotions, I ask myself why I feel that way and what that reveals about me. I think about how I want to spend my time and how that matches up with reality. Writing reinforces that routine of reflection.
Writing helps me identify things I want to build on, either when I read it back or when other people share their insights. Writing helps me work around the temptation to lie to myself or to gloss over factors. When I write things down, I have a better chance of figuring out when I don’t make sense, and when I do.
Tips: Build some time into your schedule for regular reflection so that you can…
- Ask yourself: What am I doing well? How can I do things even better? Write your thoughts in a private journal or on a blog.
- Review your reflections occasionally to see what else you can learn from them.
- Kaizen: Thinking about presentations
- On friendship and becoming more social
- Decision review: Limiting my blog to one post a day