Semi-regularly, I’ve been doing something I called “Paper Therapy.” The idea was simple: “Write on paper till your brain has nothing left in it.”

This stupidly simple idea has often been miraculous in helping me clear my mind and think of ideas or options that I was unable to just “think in my head.”

And I observed many others felt this way as well, for example:

Writing is a miraculous process. You find things you never knew were inside your own head.

— @littlecalculist

and:

I write with my hands on paper as much as I can to get my eyes off of the monitor and my hands off the keyboard. Yes taking notes on something like evernote is more useful down the road, but for me there is something more free about jotting notes on paper. It gives me a mental break, a physical break, and if I come up with something really useful, I’ll type it in a note program. As an added bonus, the retyping of it usually lets me come up with something new to add.

— http://gorban.org/post/14162629940/thinking-time

When I was going through the PersonalMBA Reading List, I came across a book called Accidental Genius by Mark Levy, and I immediately wanted to read the book because it talked about a concept called freewriting which sounded eerily similar to what I used to call “paper therapy”. So I bought the book from the Kindle store and read the entire book on my iPhone with the Kindle app.

One of the revelations as I was reading the book was that freewriting has been used as a technique for ages, especially by prose writers.

So what is freewriting? As Mark Levy says:

As expansive and impressive as the mind is, it’s also lazy. Left to its own devices, it recycles tired thoughts, takes rutted paths, and steers clear of unfamiliar and  uncomfortable territory. You could say that one of its primary jobs is to shut off, even when there’s important thinking to be done.

Freewriting prevents that from happening. It pushes the brain to think longer, deeper, and more unconventionally than it normally would. By giving yourself a handful of liberating freewriting rules to follow, you back your mind into a corner where it can’t help but come up with new thoughts. You could call freewriting a form of forced creativity.

Freewriting is a fast method of thinking onto paper that enables you to reach a level of thinking that’s often difficult to attain during the course of a normal business day.

 

As I mentioned earlier, freewriting is nothing but writing profusely on paper. It doesn’t matter what grammar you use, it doesn’t matter what you write because nobody else is going to read it, it doesn’t even matter whether you even read what you wrote! What’s important is to get the thoughts flowing and externalizing it by doing the physical action of writing fast on paper. If you can’t think of what to write, write gibberish. If you get distracted by other thoughts, write down those thoughts! The idea is to not filter anything out, these are your real thoughts and you need to externalize them.

The point is to extrapolate to write continuously. If you wrote about a problem, what are the causes and possible solutions? If you wrote about a dream, write about how and whether you are following those dreams. If you had a nightmare, write about the possible subconscious meanings of the nightmare. If you suddenly remembered some random quote from a book you read ages ago and forgotten about it, then write about that and what it means to you. If you had an altercation, write about whether it occurs frequently or whether there is a pattern. Try to explore your mind and try to explore the facts as much as possible.

The result of this exercise can only be felt, it’s hard to explain. The liberation you feel and the sudden “lightness” you feel is amazing.

Accidental Genius book cover

Mark goes on to explain six secrets of freewriting:

1. Try Easy

Trying easy will help you in any area of your life. Conventional Wisdom tells us that we have to give no less than 110 percent to keep ahread. Yet conversely, I have found that giving 90 percent is usually more effective.

It’s like the first day of gym – they make you do so much exercise and you’re so sore the next day that you never go back. Don’t do that! Instead work till you reach the edge of your current capacity and then stop. Repeat it the next day, and so on. So, if you feel you can only write 500 words, do only that much, don’t push yourself beyond that. If someday, you feel you can write more, go right ahead.

2. Write Fast and Continuously

By writing fast, you invite your mind to operate at a pace that’s closer to its normal rate of thought, rather than the lethargic crawl you usually subject it to when you write sluggishly.

Imagine you’re attending a talk and the speaker talks very slowly. Your mind races ahead and you tune out eventually in a few minutes and either doze off or walk out. Same thing applies here, if you write slowly, your mind races ahead. Instead, write as fast as your brain thinks. Remember, nobody is going to read this but you. So it’s perfectly okay to WRITE SLOPPY. Use bad handwriting, use shortcuts, use phrases that only you understand, do whatever it takes to keep your writing at the pace of your thoughts. That’s when the magic happens.

By writing continuously, you force the edit-crazy part of your mind into a subordinate position, so the idea-producing part can keep spitting out words.

If you don’t write continuously, it’ll break your flow of thoughts as well as you start to “edit” what you wrote in your head. That’s not good. So write non-stop and keep the pen moving.

The plan is to move fast and don’t stop writing, with the understanding that the more words you pile onto the page, even if they’re lousy words, the better your chance at finding a usable idea. In the freewriting game, think quantity before quality.

3. Work Against a Limit

Use a time limit, say 10 min, to practice non-stop, fast and easy freewriting. And then take a break. The reasons for this are obvious if you have read my review of the Pomodoro Technique book.

4. Write the Way You Think

Freewriting isn’t writing, per se; it’s a means of watching yourself think. Since you’re writing for yourself, you don’t need to polish your raw thoughts to please others. All that matters is that you yourself understand your logic, references, word choices, and idiosyncratic ideas.

If you really do end up showing your freewriting to someone else (without polishing it), they probably can’t make sense of it! Because you are free to use your own idioms, your own phrases, your own language, basically, the way YOU think. That’s probably a sign of “good” freewriting.

5. Go with the Thought

The whole time I was scribbling, I would say to myself something like “Go with the thought. Agree with what you just wrote, and logically extend it… Be whimsical if you like, but make sure the whimsy naturally follows what preceded it… Based on this new thought that just appeared on the page, what might happen next?

This intoxicating game of “agreeing and extending,” during which I effortlessly fleshed out scenarios, took up pages of my writing until my hand grew tired, my timer went off, or even more important, I had discovered some provisional methods for tackling a problem.

The whole point of freewriting is to extend your thoughts beyond what your mind usually is used to. Even if you have a recurring thought in your mind, you usually stop thinking about it at the same logical point, either you give up, or your brain just shuts down and doesn’t want to think about something so uncomfortable. That’s exactly where freewriting helps you to keep flowing and “free”ly continue thinking about the same topic and externalize the thoughts, and hopefully have a breakthrough on that topic.

6. Redirect Your Attention

Whatever the situation, you’re on the freewriting bus, motoring along, when suddenly you hit the brakes. The road ahead is washed out, and you don’t know how to proceed.

Quickly, you consult your checklist of freewriting rules: Try easy, check. Writing fast and continuously, check. Inoffensive kitchen timer counting down ten-minute intervals, check. Now you’ve run out of ideas. You’ve reached the end of your thoughts, or so you believe.

Time to use a focus-changer.

Focus-changers are questions like:

  • What was I thinking there?
  • How else can I say that?
Those are two of my favorites. They push me to see again what I’ve done and think I already know. They also challenge me into generating fresh thought, even after I believe I’ve run out of road. But those aren’t the only focus-changers you can use.
Focus-challengers have endless numbers or forms. Here’s a partial list of some helpful ones:
  • How can I make this exciting?
  • How can I add value?
  • What else can I say about this subject?
  • Why am I stuck at this particular point?
  • How can I get unstuck?
  • What am I missing here?
  • What am I wrong about here?
  • Why?
  • How can I prove that?
  • How can I disprove that?
  • What do I think about that?
  • If I continue to think that way, what might happen?
  • What solutions can I borrow from past problems that can be applied to this current one?
  • What does this remind me of?
  • What’s the best-case scenario?
  • What’s the worst-case scenario?
  • What am I doing right?
  • What am I doing brilliantly?
  • How can I jump the track?
  • What strengths of mine (or my company’s) can I apply?
  • What weaknesses need to be compensated for?
  • What’s the proof that that statement is true?
  • How am I the wrong person for this project?
  • How am I the right person for this project?
  • How would an arbitrator judge that?
  • If I wanted to make a big mistake here, what would I do?
  • What data do I need that I don’t yet have?
  • How would I describe the situation to the CEO?
  • How would I describe it to my mother?
  • How would I describe it to my most supportive friend?
  • How would I describe it to a disinterested stranger?
Focus-changers are simple questions to ask yourself, in writing, that help you redirect your mind toward the unexplored parts of a situation.

A good sword for Freewriting

It’s because of my indulgence of freewriting why I was asking tweeps about a good pen to write with, I got suggestions for:

I’m grateful for the suggestions by my twitter followers, and quite surprised that I’m not the only one who’s holding on to pen and paper! I’m yet to go out to a store and buy any of them, but it’s great to know the recommendations so that I don’t have to do the trial and error :)

I finally bought the Pelikan cartridge ink pen and loving it! Having such a good pen makes me more indulgent in the freewriting process.

One of the tweeps, Fayad Fami, also pointed to this ad that I agree with – “The more you write, the better you remember”:

Final Thoughts

The book goes on to explain many different aspects of freewriting – why it is useful to write, how to prompt it, using facts, letting loose, substituting concepts from other areas to solve problems, importance of quantity in freewriting, importance of lying about a situation to widen your view of a situation, holding a paper conversation with yourself or someone else, concept of sometimes doing a marathon rather than a sprint of writing, importance of being honest, importance of detailing, how to extract usefulness from a business book (like I do with my blogging about what I learned from each book!), how to use freewriting to keep your focus on what you want to make of your life, how to use freewriting to write for a public audience (a colleague, a boss, a blog, a book, etc.), helping others to freewriting, noticing things around you, and so on. It is best to learn about these by reading the book.

To sum up, as Josh Kaufman says in his review of the book:

Daily externalization and self-elicitation are heavy-duty creativity tools that will do wonders for your productivity. Give it a try: the results will surprise you.

At Barcamp Bangalore 10 on Saturday, I talked about GTD, Pomodoro and Productivity:

NOTE: If you have trouble viewing the web version, there is also a PDF version of my slides.

I was nervous when preparing for this talk because it is not a concrete topic, it’s something abstract and perhaps even illusive for many people, so when I started off my session, I asked people to set aside their cynicism for half an hour, I then established some source credibility, explained my view of how I look at productivity, success and happiness, and how GTD and Pomodoro tie into all this. The presentation above is quite self-explanatory, so I’ll not repeat that again, except for the demo-on-whiteboard part where I did a live session about how to do Pomodoro.


(photo by @the100rabh)

The session went surprisingly well, and most people grokked what I was explaining, which I’m still very surprised about. I guess part of it is because (1) the audience was so interactive and asked questions and (2) most people in the audience have already tried experimenting with todo lists and GTD, so it is a problem they were already facing, so they assimilated what I was saying very quickly.


(photo by @anenth)

The best part about Barcamp is that I got to talk about a personal obsession of mine and I would have otherwise probably never gotten a chance to discuss such a topic in-person with other people who are interested in this topic.

Some of the feedback on my session:

It was even more fun to hear from people when days after the conference, they were actually trying out the Pomodoro technique:

There were many other good sessions in Barcamp that I liked, I especially loved the sessions about the Namma Cycle project and about ShreeKumar’s adventures and how to survive while doing a yatra across the country, talking the locals, etc.

And I really do hope that the Namma Cycle project takes off – Murali who effused passion when talking about it has shown a lot of progress already – got sponsorship, got government buy-in, and is starting off at Bangalore University and has big dreams about turning Bangalore into a cycling city. That seems to be already under way, with the new cycle stand near M G Road.

Overall, even my non-techie wife thoroughly enjoyed the day and was inspired by the people she met at Barcamp. And that really says it all for me on how much I enjoyed going to Barcamp again.

Special thanks to SAP Labs India for hosting the Barcamp in their beautiful campus and the great lunch as well. And not to forget, all the organizers of BCB10, kudos to you guys for making it happen!

P.S. Regarding the Quantified Self phenomenon, I highly recommend reading the New York Times article by Gary Wolf on The Data Driven Life.

Update: Just remembered a related old article of mine – Creativity and Organization is Impact”.

Philipp Lenssen recently had a good post on tips on information
overload by various
people
. It got me
thinking about the various tips and tricks I’ve imbibed in the recent
past and which work reasonably well for me. So I tried to collate them
into one place:

Email

  • Always bring the inbox down to zero regularly. ‘Regularly’ is
    defined by you.
  • Never allow anything to be in your inbox > 2-3 days
    • If you’re not going to reply in that time frame, you never will.
      So simply archive it or reply with a one-liner saying you can’t
      look into it now.
  • If you don’t have anything to add, don’t reply.
  • Make sure you are clear on what is the action you are expecting
    from the recipient.
  • Reply in bullet points. Because everybody
    skims
    .
  • Once you’re done with the email (replying, taking action or
    reading), archive it.
  • If it is not actionable, archive it. Don’t let it remain in your
    inbox.
  • Use keyboard shortcuts.
  • Mailing lists go into folders. I simulate them in Gmail using “Apply
    label, Skip Inbox” in the filters. The reason is that mails not
    directly addressed to me are not urgent, so I can process them
    whenever I have the inclination. Whatever is in my inbox is what
    deserves immediate attention.
  • Minimize the number of times you need to check email. The minimum
    that is required for you to stop worrying about it. The beauty of
    email is that you can reply at your pace. Make use of that feature.
    If you end up constantly checking email, you’re better off resorting
    to phone calls or instant
    messenger
    .
  • [new tip] Before you send the next email, go through the
    checklist.

Feeds

  • Use your feed reader once in a few days. The world won’t stop
    without you.
  • Use a desktop feed reader because it is faster to
    use
    .
  • Have a ‘Try Before You Buy’ folder where you add feeds. If it
    doesn’t turn out to be useful, delete it.
  • Have a number in mind, say 100 feeds. If you add a new feed, delete
    an old feed that is no longer interesting.
  • If you end up doing a ‘Mark all as read’ on a feed 2-3 times in
    a row, delete it.
  • Separate them into categories and/or priorities.
  • Most importantly, read interesting things. Do not aim for reading
    500+ blog posts a day. Optimize, don’t maximize.
  • Remember that the goal is to derive some value out of this reading
    and that value is usually knowledge. If it is not helping you
    towards that goal, delete it.
    Don’t think twice, just delete it.
  • While working, if you feel the need to distract yourself once in
    a while or read something interesting, don’t use your feed reader
    but use good filters like TechMeme or programming.reddit or a good
    link-blogger on your subjects of interest. Have a separate dedicated
    time for reading feeds.
  • Take
    notes.
    Over time, you’ll judge if a feed is useful or not depending on
    whether you’re taking (any) notes or not.

Inlets

  • Cut down on the types of inlets – Email, Feeds, Twitter, IRC,
    Messenger, Phone, etc. (this one is particularly hard for me)
  • Spend at least 50% of your time at the computer with all these
    inlets shut down.

Focus

  • Personally I find productivity inversely proportional to information
    overload. The days when I’m productive and “in the zone” turns out
    to be the days when I’m less affected by information overload. The
    vice-versa is true as well. So if you focus on the right things, the
    information overload problem will get solved by itself.
  • Maintain focus by having a todo list. Have a big todo list and then
    pick random tasks from that list depending on your energy levels
    and get things done.
  • Never indulge in tasks outside of your todo list. If you’re not in
    the mood for any of them, don’t indulge in
    wilfing.
    Go out instead – whether for a walk, or call up a friend or even
    read a paper book. If you’re not being productive, just get out of
    the chair.
  • Don’t use fancy software for writing lists. Use a good plain text
    editor (like Vim).
  • Use GTD.
  • Use an auto-pilot
    schedule

    (I’m still learning this).

P.S. Many of these ideas have been borrowed from elsewhere. It’s been
a long time since I imbibed all these, so I don’t remember all the
sources from which I gleaned them.