Thinking through writing

How I stop-started with journalling

YouTube has these cyclical themes that it seems to throw into my feed, and the latest one is Journalling. It’s easy to forget how hard platforms like this work on tailoring content to you. Open up a YouTube app on a device that’s been left logged in to someone else’s account and it’s suddenly quite clear how much it does this. It’s like being in another world. Pages of content all around themes that you didn’t even know existed.

When anyone turns on my smart TV and finds themselves in my account, a big chunk of the feed is productivity videos. And a big chunk of these every now and then seem to be on journalling. If I don’t click them then they go away, to be replaced by note-taking, or goal setting, or a rotating set of other themes. But journalling will be back every few weeks. Urging me to click it, and dive deep into the hundreds of people explaining what it is and why it has changed their life. Once clicked, more and more of these videos surface.. my giving in takes me sliding down the rabbit hole.

There are a lot of ‘methods’ that people share when talking about journalling, and I must be honest that has always put me off. I looked into some content around bullet journalling a while ago, and couldn’t get past not wanting to learn a bunch of specific symbols I was meant to use to mark different types of ideas or tasks. I tried a little using some ‘morning prompts’, questions to answer each day. But to be honest I found most of them a bit cringy. The ones I used just ended up a bit repetitive, I would find myself thinking that I’d answered that a few times now and I really wanted to think in a different way. Some people seemed to think this was entirely the point, and you gained something through the repeated reflection, but I never got that revalation If I am honest. I thought perhaps journalling wasn’t really for me.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was a bit stuck on a project at work. I had talked it through with several people, I had sat around thinking about it, and googling for things to read related to it, but I still just wasn’t clear. So I decided to write down what I was thinking about it, and the questions I had. Not to share with anyone. Not to report on, or to email to someone, just for me.

I sat down and spent ten minutes or so writing about it. And I found it incredibly helpful. I didn’t end up with a plan, or a document that would be part of the work. I just worked through some of the issues I was thinking about and made clearer what I needed to do. There was something about the concreteness of putting the thoughts down on a page that helped me to figure out what it was that I was clear on, and what was really not clear.

I’ve been reading ‘Working Backwards‘ recently, the account of two ex-Amazon execs on how things work at Amazon and how different this is to many organisations. One of the things they explore is how slide decks reporting on progress are banned at Amazon and everyone has to write narrative documents for meetings. They assert that slide decks are too concise, and allow too much space for ambiguity. Fudges and uncertainties are too well hidden in the slide deck format. In a written narrative, you can’t as easily get away with ambiguity or inconsistency. Writing things down in this way forces you to make them clearer.

That’s pretty much exactly what I found in my little exercise. Writing things down made it much clearer to be what I already understood well, and what I was still ambiguous about. It moved me on from thinking in a circular way about what I already knew. I got that stuff down, and then had to work through the other areas.

I think I had forgotten how much I think through writing. That linear narrative that you have when writing, and can miss when just thinking or talking about things, really helps to get things more clearly worked out.

So I went back to journalling, and for the last week or so I have been spending a little time each morning before work writing. Not following lots of journalling-with-a-capital-J methods, just writing. I’ve made a new note each morning, and just written down what I am thinking about, what I am planning for the day, what I need to think through. Sometimes that has been work related things, other times it has been planning out jobs I need to get done for myself. I’ve not had massive goals about how much I should write, just that I should write something each morning.

More often than not, I end up getting into a flow and writing quite a bit. I have noticed that the most valuable part of this is often once I’ve got down everything I was thinking about, recorded that stuff, and then continued. Once all the obvious stuff is written down, that’s when the thinking really starts. I start thinking ahead about what the next thing I need to work on is, or what the implications of what I’ve brain-dumped onto the page are. It’s like the part I get to when I don’t actually know what I am going to write is the part that is most useful.

So I’m keeping this up. Writing each morning, just spending enough time to get past whatever is buzzing around in my head and into the space where I am thinking. But also writing when I think it might be useful in the day too. No expectations that it is for someone else to read, but just writing to think things through. It can seem self indulgent to spend time writing with no intention of it having any audience, but I’ve been finding this is a really valuable way of getting my thinking going and figuring things out.

Things I’m paying attention to this week

  • I’ve been updating my approach to note taking (or ‘personal knowledge management’ as the YouTubers call it). Tiago Forte’s YouTube channel has been a useful resource for picking some new apps and approaches.

  • Working Backwards’ by Bryar and Carr is the story of how some of Amazon’s famous working methods came to be. Having recently left an organisation that grew quickly and developed some useful and some frustrating working methods, it’s an interesting comparison.

  • Loads of words spilled about Elon Musk’s Twitter purchase this week… I found this piece by Noah Smith one of the more interesting takes.






2 responses to “Thinking through writing”

  1. Julia Skinner Avatar
    Julia Skinner

    I write Daily Pages every day. I have tried to get out in the garden to write & try to do it first thing. I have found it really helps set my mood for the day & often inspires some creative ideas to appear. I just write to empty my head.
    For me, this is different from journaling. I have also started this & have found it really good for relaxing me. I have looked at bullet journals but they are far too complicated so I have a simple planner. What both the planner & journals (I have two) give me in the chance to be creative with colours & ephemera as well as sharing my thoughts on particular subjects. I post to my twitter feed & Instagram if you want to have a look!

    1. Oliver Quinlan Avatar
      Oliver Quinlan

      That’s interesting Julia thanks for sharing. The emptying your head angle I hadn’t really thought of. Going to think about this as sounds very beneficial. I agree on the structured journaling being too complicated, I prefer to be more free form myself although I’m sure prompts are really useful to some of us. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to share my posts like you! But been seeing them on Twitter. I find I am far more fluent typing as can type much quicker than hand write, but again depends on what different methods bring you. Just good to experiment!

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