I’ve recently begun the practice of maintaining a working thoughts document. The idea behind this document is to work through difficult or interesting problems I’m dealing with on a day-to-day basis at work through writing.
I was inspired to start doing this after reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. In the book, Carnegie describes a technique Ben Franklin used to use. Franklin would write down the pros/cons for something that he worried about to help conquer his worries on the matter and settle his mind.
Much has been said elsewhere about the value of writing things down rather than just thinking about them. For me, writing really helps debug my own thought process. Sometimes I have a vague sense of why something feels like a good or bad idea but I can’t quite explain why. This practice helps me flush things out and consider more supporting arguments for or against something.
A working thoughts document is also a great place to prepare for debates or difficult conversations. It helps me feel more prepared and makes me more likely to think through rebuttals and counter-arguments. Sometimes, they even make me change my mind!
After doing this for a while, I’ve found a things helpful and made a few observations.
Have one big document
Having one big document is probably the lowest friction way to get some quick ideas down without having to be super organized about it. I just make a google doc and have it as a handy link in my bookmark toolbar for quick access. Using the google docs outline feature, I give each thought a heading and it is easy to jump back to it later if I want to iterate on it.
Having it be at my fingertips makes me more likely to just do it and makes it feel like less of a big deal each time. Like many people, I find it difficult to get things started when it comes to writing. I can always spin off a specific thought into its own doc later if needed.
Approach an issue as if you haven’t made up your mind yet (even if you think you have)
Approaching an issue with an open mind can help divorce you from a preconceived or emotional attachment to an idea. I try to allow the arguments to unfold and see what I think after reading my own words. Sometimes I surprise myself! There is an amount of objectivity that comes from writing an idea down, and then reading it back – some time later. I tend to mold my ideas into something more coherent over time; I think they start to make more and more sense to someone else; which is usually the objective in the first place.
It’s not useful for all things all the time
My usage of this technique has waxed and waned over time, based on what was going on. In more stressful, hectic times, its super useful. At other times, I may not use it as much.
Archive for historical purposes
Can you remember what you did last month? Last summer? Last year? I know I can’t.
Since working thoughts tend to be transient, you might think to just throw them away; I don’t. I move them to an archive document and put a date on each entry. I do this periodically to housekeep the main document. Archiving can serve many useful purposes. It can serve as a historical record of how I made decisions in the past or what my rationale was at the time. This can be especially useful in retrospectives on past decisions, another great activity I plan to start doing more deliberately.
You can also use it to populate a career document, probably one of the most useful documents you can maintain relating to your career. It can be relatively straightforward to translate these thoughts to a career log later, since they tend to represent the important things you’ve had to do in the past.
I’ve found the practice of writing working thoughts down really valuable. Try it for a week as an experiment and see if it helps you. There is a good chance in any given week you’ll run into a problem that could be well-served by it. I probably start a new entry at least 1-2 times per week.