Writing: Open loops, closed loops, and working with forgetfulness

I think I’ve written about something before, but I can’t find it. I have thirteen tabs open with Google search results from my blog. I’ve tried countless keywords and synonyms. I’ve skimmed through posts I only half-remember writing. (Was that blog post really that short? I thought I wrote more details.) I still haven’t found the post I want.

I wonder: Did I really publish it? Or did I just outline or sketch it? Am I confusing it with something similar that I wrote, or someone else’s post that I admired?

Ah, well, time to write it from scratch. It’s a little like writing code. Sometimes it would take so long to find an appropriate open source module that you’re better off just writing the code yourself. Sometimes it would take so long to find an existing post that it’s better to just write it from scratch.

I was looking for that particular post because of a conversation with Flavian de Lima where I mentioned the benefits of blogging while you’re learning something. He resonated with the idea of sharing your notes along the way so that other people can learn from them, even if you’ve moved on to different topics.

Despite having a clear memory of writing about this topic, when I went to the post that I thought was related to it (spiral learning), it didn’t mention blogging at all. “Share while you learn” didn’t quite address it, either. After trying lots of searches, I gave up and started writing a new post. After all, memories are fallible; you could have full confidence in an imagined event.

The reason this came up was because Flavian described how he often took advantage of open loops when working on writing. He would stop with an incomplete thought, put the draft away, and let his subconscious continue working on it. Sometimes it would be days or weeks before he got back to working on the article. He mentioned how other authors might take years to work on novels, dusting off their manuscripts and revising scenes here and there.

Keeping loops open by stopping mid-sentence or mid-task is a useful technique often recommended for writing or programming. Research describes this as the Zeigarnik effect: an interrupted task stays in your memory and motivates you to complete it.

But after reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I had become a convert of closed loops: getting tasks, ideas, notes out of your head and into a trusted system so that you don’t have to waste energy trying to remember them. I noticed that if I kept too many loops open, my mind felt buzzy and distracted. To work around this, I got very good at writing things down.

In fact, I took closing loops one step further. Publishing my notes on my blog helped me get rid of the guilt and frustration I used to feel whenever I found myself wanting to move on to a different project. Because my notes were freely available for anyone who was trying to figure out the same thing, I could go ahead and follow the butterflies of my interest to a different topic. My notes could also help me pick things up again if I wanted to.

I didn’t stop mid-sentence or mid-thought, but I published in the middle of learning instead of waiting until I finished. Even my review posts often included next steps and open questions. So I got a little satisfaction from posting each small chunk, but I still left dangling threads for me to follow up on. I closed the loops enough so that the topics didn’t demand my attention.

Writing helped me clear my mind of strong open loops–but it worked a little too well. I tried to close things off quickly, so that I could revisit them when I wanted to. The trick was remembering that they were there. Sometimes I forgot the dangling threads for a year or more. I never followed up on others. Even with my regular review processes, I often forgot what I had written, as in the search that prompted this post.

Writing and memory have an ancient trade-off. Even Socrates had something to say about it, quoting an ancient Egyptian king in Plato’s The Phaedrus:

“…for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”

as quoted in On writing, memory, and forgetting: Socrates and Hemingway take on Zeigarnik

In 2011, Sparrow, Liu, and Wegner showed that people remember less if they think a computer will keep their notes for them, and they tend to remember how to get to the information rather than the information itself. Having written the words, published the posts, and indexed the titles, I’ve forgotten the words; and now I can’t find my way back.

Hence my immediate challenge: sometimes I forget how to get to the information I’ve stored, like a squirrel stashing nuts. (More research: tree squirrels can’t find 74% of the nuts they bury. So I’m doing slightly better than a squirrel, I think.)

Google helps if I can remember a few words from the post, but since it tends to search for exact words, I have to get those words right. Hah, maybe I need to use search engine optimization (SEO) techniques like writing with different keywords – not for marketing, but for my own memory. It reminds me of this SEO joke:

How many SEO copywriters does it take to change a lightbulb, light bulb, light, bulb, lamp, bulbs, flowers, flour…?

My blog index is helpful, but it isn’t enough. I need to write more descriptive titles. Perhaps I should summarize the key point as well. Maps can help, as can other deliberate ways of connecting ideas.

Let me take a step back and look at my goals here. Linking to posts helps me save time explaining ideas, build on previous understanding, and make it easy for people to dig into more detail if they want. But I can also accomplish these goals by linking to other people’s explanations. With so many people writing on the Web, chances are that I’ll find someone who has written about the topic using the words I’m looking for. I can also write a new post from scratch, which has the advantages of being tailored to a specific question and which possibly integrates the forgotten thoughts even without explicit links.

It’s an acceptable trade-off, I think. I’ll continue writing, even with the increased risk of forgetting. If I have to write from scratch even when I think I’ve probably written about the same topic before, I can accept that as practice in writing and thinking.

Other writers have better memories. Flavian told me how he can remember articles he wrote in the 1990s, and I’ve heard similar accounts from others. Me, I’ve been re-reading this year’s blog posts in preparation for my annual review, and I’ve come across ones that pleasantly surprised me. Posts two or three years back are even fuzzier in my memory. I can try to strengthen my memory through exercises and processes. The rest of the time, I can work with the brain that I have. In fact, I’m inclined to build more memory scaffolds around myself, moving more of my memory outside my mind.

[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. …The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.

  • Albert Einstein, as Wikiquotes cites from Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007)

And really, how much difference would perfect memory make? I might add more links, include more citations, cover more new ground. I can still learn and share without it.

Forgetful squirrels have their uses. Forgotten acorns grow into oaks for others to enjoy. From time to time, I hear from people who’ve come across old posts through search engines, or I come across old posts in a review. Loops re-open, dangling threads are taken up again, and we continue.

  • James Mc Sherry

    Nice post Sacha! I really en

    • Hello, James! Ooooh, I’d love to chat about processes in more detail. If you’d like to chat over Google Hangout or Skype, feel free to pick a time from sachachua.com/meet. I’ve played around with mindmaps, outlines, cards, and indices for managing my ideas. I like the way index cards let me think through a thought and that outlines let me gradually bring together several index cards that are related. I use Anki for memorization, but haven’t used it for prompting me to think about topics.

      I’m starting to find that keeping track of those open loops exerts a subtle, useful pressure to figure out what I’m missing so that I can close the loop or build up to more interesting questions. =) For example, I’ve got this reflection on mastery and diminishing/compounding returns that’s been sitting around since the beginning of the month, but I haven’t fleshed it out into a post yet because I haven’t figured out what I want from it. Probably something about telling the difference between diminishing returns and compounding returns… I’ll follow up on that one of these days!

  • Hi Sacha! I just happened across your blog by chance – some very good thoughts here! One technique I use is similar to what you suggested by posting your notes ahead of time – that is, to use Evernote to as a highly searchable collector of ideas. It works better for me since Evernote is installable on my iPad, iPhone, Mac and PC (and web enabled). You can also create public links to your notes so that your blog post could reference the notes directly. Also, I use both Pocket and Pinterest to keep links that spur ideas.

    A lot of good reading ahead! Thanks!

    • Yes, I use Evernote as well. I like how it lets me search handwriting, although sometimes that works and sometimes that isn’t as helpful. =) I still prefer using a blog to share my notes with people because this allows them to comment on posts (a great way to learn!), but some of my Evernote notebooks are publicly available (sketchnotes, visual vocabulary, sketchbook).

  • JoelMcCracken

    Writing about the same topic a few years in actually might be a good thing, I think.

    As we get older, our perspective changes. How we explain things change, and who we think of as our audience changes. Its like a good book: every time you read it, you get something new from it.

    Thus, covering things you’ve already covered makes some sense I think. Especially if you use the open/closed loop metaphor: If you’re still thinking about it, then there is probably something left undone, unsaid, or incomplete, either in your life, or in your understanding. If your understanding is incomplete, how can a post from a few years ago be comprehensive?

    That said, I’ve totally stumbled across blog posts of my own that I forgot existed and hand the answer I needed. Evidently, I had at one time known the answer, written about it, forgotten it, and then forgotten that I ever knew it.

    Ooops. What was I saying again?

    • I feel that my understanding is always incomplete. <laugh> But yes, some topics draw me back again and again. I like learning about Emacs, coding, writing, drawing, and personal knowledge management. Those rabbitholes go very, very deep indeed. Sometimes I feel like I make very slow progress (so many posts trying to work through one small question at a time!), but looking back, I can see the distance. And yes, like you, sometimes I run into things I’ve forgotten that I’ve forgotten. =) I usually link to relevant posts when I can, but sometimes I don’t notice connections until people or circumstances point them out. The benefits of having a blog, I guess!

  • I still am working on optimizing my memory system. I have a good (or bad habit) of randomly remembering interesting phrases from articles that I have read, and then I go on long searches to find that article that I read a long time ago. Evernote and physical writing help, but only when I am diligent about linking to interesting ideas as soon as I read them. I use Mohiomap to make a visual map of my Evernote notebook which helps me find interesting links.

    For my blog, I use a IFTTT script to back up the entry into Evernote automatically as it is posted so I have an Evernote copy to search. Of course my blog is a lot smaller than yours so I doubt that I have tested Evernote’s search ability. :)

    • Susi: Yeah, I totally know what that feels like! That’s why I clip things in Evernote or stuff them into my digital commonplace book with some of my own words, just in case that helps me find things again. Sometimes I don’t do this and then I can’t find things, so I add a note about the missing reference just in case someone else can chime in with the link.

  • Richard Styrman

    I found things I had structured in a Wiki; like an index page, I never forgot how to access it. Even thought it was years ago. ( I think it has to do that it accesses a technique similar to “Method of the Loci” memory technique, that I remember the path I use to take there, cause i’ve written the structure on the wiki; in such a way its clickable to browse content )

    It’s the same way; you can remember your house, walk through it room by room, I can remember my wiki, walking through the pages. I havn’t figured out how to use the org-mode agenda togheter with “scaffolding” an index page. Example I keep my todo on top of document.

    However if my data is in to find content; I do forget it, eventually.

    Take it with a grain of salt. Just my input :)

    The trick is to make your mind, take the least amount of hoops to get to where youu want to go.
    And in your mind to be able to follow your train of thoughts;
    Able to walk forward and backward; gives you a sense of space.

    Example my reference point; I always go back to is my index page;
    Information I have refined I can remember; open loops I havn’t really proccessed yet completly and anchored it down in my index file.

    So I can remember how to access it by walking through the index file in my mind, but i can’t remember the words.

    Problems i’ve run into:
    My index files can become too huge to maintain.
    Splitting them up; scaffolding out structured topics, an wiki page for each subject. I am experimenting on.

    I got alot of mental notes on the subject, but I’ve leave it like that, just wanted to give some feedback.


    Method of the Loci – Explained https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdfUaydquXs

    Used for example by Jonas von Essen; Showcased here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s82POi7s5BU

    of refined information in wiki format.

    • Hmm, that’s an interesting approach. I definitely build some kind of memory when I search my blog or use C-u org-refile to jump to an outline heading by some of the keywords from the headings, and sometimes I remember things in my blogs based on the links I need to follow.

      In addition to searching, browsing through a link structure is good for prompting my memory. This is why I invest the time in building indices, outlines, and lists – they’re great for reminding me about stuff I wouldn’t have thought of searching for. Even if I have to follow several links, it still keeps it manageable.

      My blog index at http://sachachua.com/blog/index is pretty manageable for me, even though the top-level entries are too many to fit in my head. I split large categories to make them easier to work with, and I narrow to Org Mode subtrees in order to focus.

      By the way, the angle brackets (< and >) are special because of HTML tags, so you may want to avoid using them to quote things. Maybe use ” or [ instead?

  • Martin

    Hi Sacha,

    very interesting post. As I tend to forget things easily, I’ve also gotten into the habit of writing literally (nearly) everything down which has often helped me a lot later when I needed the information.

    In fact my experience is similar to yours: if I’ve written it down, I tend to forget it – I often find notes which I think I would not even have known they existed, and I found them by a keyword search.

    You said, you need the right keyword to find the content again.

    Evernote was already mentioned. For Mac OS X (I’m not sure which OS you use) there is a similar software with a really powerful feature “see also” which finds similar content based on AI algorithms.

    It’s called DevonThink Pro (see http://www.devontechnologies.com/products/devonthink/devonthink-pro.html ) and especially people working in Research working with many sources find it very useful.

    I’m not affiliated to DevonTechnologies, I’m just a happy user.

    Kind regards


    • Yes, I’ve heard good things about DevonThink’s automatic association of notes. =) I find that my mind does a decent job of associating most of the time, especially with blog posts (since they’re often long enough that I’ve probably used several different words to describe something), and that people’s comments lead to serendipitous juxtapositions. Looking forward to having more automatic association support at some point, though!