Think for a Bit


I’ve never been very good at just sitting and thinking.

I’ve previously mentioned my habit of writing in my head when I don’t have the option of writing with my fingers. I’ve managed to train myself to make good use of mental downtime in that way. It’s second nature now. What’s difficult as hell is forcing myself to stop and think when the tools of my trade are right there, waiting to be used.

When I’m making a website, I’d far rather just jump headlong into wire-framing and coding and tweaking, instead of first letting it take some shape in my mind. When I think of an idea I want to write, I’m impatient to get it down on paper before it disappears. When I’m assembling IKEA furniture… sometimes I get started before I’ve taken the time to look at the instructions.

This tendency can actually be quite good. Almost everything great ever written started with a less-than-perfect first draft. Too many projects never get started because we overthink them to death.

However, there are a couple of dangers with the jump first, think later approach. The most obvious — oh man, I can tell you this from hard-won experience — is that if you burrow in too deep with the practicals you can miss some gargantuan problems up ahead.

The less obvious danger is this: as soon as you start putting things on paper, coding them into being, daubing them on canvas, you’ve thrown a switch that imbues them with a tremendous amount of momentum. The moment before your idea starts to take actual form in whatever medium it’s going to exist, it takes little effort to swing it in a completely different direction. After that moment, you’ve crossed an invisible Rubicon: a mental leap in a particular direction.

The new thing I’m trying is this: whenever I have an idea, instead of immediately writing down as much about it as possible (as was my wont) I’m instead restraining myself to one or two words. Just enough information to make sure that it doesn’t disappear completely. Then I’m allowing it a full 24 hours to percolate, and actively setting aside time for that, before I start moving in any direction.

I’m not sure whether this experiment is a good idea or not. Since I’ve begun it I’ve already talked myself out of starting on a book, and coerced myself away from submitting a pitch to The Magazine. I don’t like being cautious in this way, it goes against my nature.

Think for a Bit© — you saw it here first.