Writing Is Thinking

It’s easy for “to-do” to get in the way of “so what”. By creating a habit of religiously writing lists, you’ll clear your mind for what it’s good at.

I recently made a very small change to my daily routine that has had an enormous impact: I make lists.

I make lists for everything:

  • Need something at the grocery store? List.

  • Idea for a project I’m working on? List.

  • Interesting observation about some mundane topic? List.

  • Thinking about calling a friend to catch-up, but don’t have time at the moment? You guessed it, list.

This strategy isn’t particularly revolutionary. Lots of people use lists to varying degrees of success. The difference between this strategy working and changing your life is whether you go all-in on lists.

Lists are helpful because they clear your mind so you can think. Every day, you have dozens of responsibilities and reminders that are running as a background process:

…make sure you get bread at the store and email your coworker about whether they finished that report and the car payment is due on the fifth so go to the DMV and have we considered this factor for the project and am I going to schedule that trip this year …

It’s easy for “to-do” to get in the way of “so what”. By creating a habit of religiously writing lists, you’ll clear your mind for what it’s good at: making new connections and ideas.

Our brains seem to have two modes: inference and recall. Inference is thinking: it’s what happens when you make some decision based on an observation about the world around you. Recall is remembering: it’s the process of pulling up old decisions and observations. These two modes both require concentration, but they don’t work well together.

Lists help me separate thinking from remembering, so I can keep my brain in one mode at a time. For example, when I sat down to write this essay, I made sure to write down every task that was sitting in my head before starting. Like clearing off a cluttered table, this action gives me space to spread out and makes room for better ideas.

Many people assume that creative tasks like writing are recall processes, when they are actually inference. Writers sitting at a blank page often don’t know what they are going to say. The process of writing is usually as surprising to the writer as it is to the reader.

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”

Isaac Asimov

Essays don’t appear fully formed in one’s head; they are created from ideas that lead the author down interesting paths. Good writers recognize these ideas, mark them down for recall later, and find time to think about them.

The value of creating lists is that you get better at recognizing good ideas, and have space to explore them when you need to. One of the biggest advantages of being a persistent list maker is the ability to recognize that you are actually having an idea. Without the habit of writing these thoughts down, ideas tend to float in and out of our consciousness. Making lists solidifies these thoughts and pulls them upward and onto the page.

There are many techniques for effective list writing, and I won’t pretend that there is a single right way to do it. Some people prefer pen and paper, while others prefer to use software designed for the task.

The only requirement is that your habit captures ideas as soon as they appear, while they are still fresh in your mind. Try taking a week and writing down every thought that you have — you might be surprised with what you find.


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