Think more effectively by typing to yourself

Whenever I need to think, I often switch to my text editor and start typing. Whether I’m coding, debugging, making decisions, or simply figuring things out, I find that typing helps a lot.

Typing keeps a record of your thoughts, which is invaluable when it comes to untangling complexities or picking up where you left off after interruptions. Typing feels more socially acceptable than talking to yourself out loud. You don’t interrupt other people’s thoughts. You might even look like you’re doing serious work – which thinking is, but it’s sometimes less obvious when you’re just staring into the distance. You feel a sense of progress, and you can stop yourself from endlessly retreading the same topics.

I sketch my thoughts on paper if I want to play around with visuals or if I want the big picture, but typing feels more useful for having internal conversation, including links and references, and covering lots of ground.

I type at ~120 words per minute, which lets me keep up with my thoughts. I think faster than this, or at least I think I do. But when I think without typing, I often feel my mind jitter between topics like a squirrel on a sugar rush. Handwriting is too slow, talking out loud too ephemeral. Typing is just right. It slows me down just enough to keep my thoughts coherent.

(And really, when I measured how fast I type when I’m copying something and how fast I type when I’m coming up with something from scratch, the result was clear: thinking is the slow part of this process, not typing.)

I often use typing as a way of talking to myself, much like you would talk to someone over social media or instant messaging. I ask myself questions. I explore my uncertainties. I tell myself things that I know or that I want to find out. I put on different hats, adopt different perspectives. I make progress, and I can see that progress. Sometimes it almost feels like I’m simply transcribing a conversation that I’m observing. I can focus on typing and let my thoughts go where they want.

Typing lets me write and think non-linearly. I jump around, fleshing out points, following up on thoughts. Sometimes I organize my thoughts into outlines or link between ideas. As I type, I notice interesting questions or ideas and mark them as TODOs. I can flag them without losing my train of thought or worrying that I’ll forget about them.

At the end, when I’ve written my way towards understanding or resolution, I can step back to get a better look at the choices I’ve considered and my reasons for choosing. I’ve got something that I can extract TODOs from or even neaten up into a blog post. I keep the rough notes in my journal, which is part structured review and part brain-dump of whatever I’m thinking about. That way, I can review these notes, months later, to improve my understanding, see if I made the right decision, and think about what else I would like to learn or do next.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my journal entries:

What’s good to do now, after the sketchnote?

I should focus on other things, I think – limiting flow to encourage balance and planning ahead instead. Besides, I already have three sketchnotes queued. I don’t need to draw my way into February, and I can learn from people’s feedback in order to improve the next sketch. So it’s okay to spread it out to one sketch every other day or so. I’ll try a two-week publishing frequency first, and then I’ll up it to weekly if I manage to queue enough. (Editorial Calendar is handy!)

I think it would be interesting to tweak Emacs to make this sketchnoting workflow even more effective.

How would I do that?

Well, for starters, I can write some Emacs Lisp that copies my basic template, renames it appropriately, adds the date, adds the property, and links to the file. Wouldn’t that be cool?

I wonder if i can drive the redirection from Emacs Lisp as well. I don’t have to do it in WordPress, after all. I can get a snippet that I can copy and paste into the Nginx site configuration for sketchedbooks. Mwahahaha.

Typing to yourself is even more effective when you’re trying to write or debug code. I use Org Mode for Emacs, so it’s easy for me to include links to StackOverflow answers that I’m trying to apply, source blocks with code I’m experimenting with, descriptions of approaches I want to try… If the comic “This is why you shouldn’t interrupt a programmer” resonates with you, then you know how useful it is to have notes on what you’re trying to figure out.

If you’re frustrated when you can’t pin down your thoughts, if you find yourself circling topics but not making much progress, consider typing to yourself. If you don’t type fast enough and you find yourself getting annoyed, invest the time in learning how to type faster so that you can reduce the friction. If you type fast enough to keep up with your thoughs, try using a conversational approach, talking to yourself with different perspectives. Might be a handy way to think more effectively. Good luck, and tell me how that works out for you!

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  • Delmania

    This is excellent advice. From personal experience, there have been a number of times I’ve held an idea in my head that I was convinced was correct, but then I sat down, wrote it as if I was going to post it to a blog, and then I realized all the problems I had with the idea.

    • Mmm… I usually experience the opposite. Let’s say I’m trying to debug something. So I start writing about all the different ways I’m trying to understand or fix it, and in the middle of a complaint about something that I think the software was doing incorrectly, I realize that *I* was the one doing things incorrectly. I fix that, the problem is resolved, and I post the results so that other people can learn from my mistakes.

      Also quite frequent: I start writing about something that I’m trying to figure out. I realize that parts of it are really vague and wispy. I don’t know enough to articulate them. So I try, and eventually I do. =)

      Do those types of experiences happen to you too?

      • Delmania

        Usually, when it comes to debugging, I assume I did something wrong. Just a habit formed by many hours of staring at code =)

        However, I have had the experience where I had an idea, but I wasn’t able to articulate it clearly, sat down, wrote a little, and suddenly, my mind understood what I had to do. Case in point, I occasionally read the blog Godel’s Lost Letter, which is a blog about computation theory. It’s been a long time since I studied that material, but I find that if I write down my understanding of the post, suddenly the areas that I had trouble understanding make a lot more sense. When that happens, I tend to visualize a set of dusty gears start to turn as my mind begins to process the information and transform it into understanding.