Distributed cognition lies at the heart of many creativity and productivity systems. It’s basically a fancy term for a two-step process:
- Collecting thoughts
- Organizing them
Collecting thoughts means externalizing them in some way, usually onto paper or computer. Once we get them out of the mind’s short-term memory, we create space, “mental RAM,” to have further thoughts more fluidly. Mental energy previously spent trying to hoard ideas, especially ones with more apparent potential, is now free to accommodate the flow of newer ideas.
Organizing thoughts, especially when done as a separate phase after collecting them, allows us to triage and filter ideas for context and relevance. When people try to brainstorm entirely in their heads or try to plan even simple projects ad-hoc, they alternate between collecting and organizing haphazardly, rendering the attempt ineffective, or at least inefficient. It’s easier to evaluate and order ideas confidently when you know you’ve got every idea on your mind off your mind.
Without writing out all ideas as they occur, the tendency is to ignore the ones that might have more significance on reflection. It would be nice if our thoughts on a subject occurred in order or importance or usefulness, but there’s no reason to assume that the first thoughts that occur to us will be the ones that matter most. The extreme example we all know is Thomas Edison’s use of nichrome wire in the light bulb, which came after a myriad failed ideas for filaments. It’s usually sufficient to think of a few alternative ideas beyond the most obvious.
A refocusing tool
Writing thoughts down instead of holding them in the mind is a best practice for productivity. If you’re working on a task that requires any focus, having unrelated thoughts occur during that time will take away from that focus.
For instance, while writing this post, I suddenly found myself wanting to test a feature in Cmap Tools. My first impulse was to open the app, but I knew this would lead me to further testing, and become a rabbit trail I’d regret running down. So I toggled over to my Palm Desktop and entered “Test for unlabelled link capability in Cmap Tools” on my @Computer list, then toggled back to this draft document. Instead of derailing my attention for several minutes (or longer through serial digressions), I disengaged from my writing for a few seconds, knowing that I would review my action lists in between tasks.
Without a full GTD system, like I’ve set up on the Palm, it’s still easy enough to keep a pad of paper nearby to grab stray thoughts for dealing with after finishing your current task. With a full GTD setup, we might optionally capture stray thoughts on paper and throw them in an intray, then subsequently batch process the entire intray contents into a paper or electronic organizer.
A brainstorming tool
Traditional brainstorming practice correctly encourages problem solving by generating or collecting as many ideas as possible while suspending judgment. But brainstorming tends to be weak on what to do afterwards. The usual advice is to select one or a critical few key ideas. This can be effective when singular concepts are what matter — coming up with a theme for an ad campaign, designing a new type of potato peeler — but project planning requires stringing some elements in a sequence for action, clustering others as information for reference.
Screenwriters usually determine what scenes will make up a script by writing down each scene on an index card. Some of these scenes will be discarded, some will be consolidated into fewer cards, and all of the cards will ultimately be rearranged into a final order. This would be a sequence for action. Index cards with bibliographic information would be a cluster of information for reference.
Index cards are still one of the best ways to collect and organize thoughts. They can be treated like blocks, and be stacked to view one at a time, or sprawled to compare and cluster related ones. Unlike legal pads and word processors, index cards have small boundaries, which for many people makes the whitespace factor less intimidating. When planning a project, you simply list actions steps and other considerations as they occur to you — one thought per card. When finished collecting everything that’s on your mind, you lay them out in what appears to be the most effective sequence, or group non-actionable considerations by their relationships.
Sticky notes (Post-Its or other brands) are similar to index cards. While they don’t lend themselves to stacking conveniently like index cards, they have the advantage of easily mounting on whiteboards. This makes them better for groups, since they’re more visible and more open to collaboration during the collection process.
Knowledge mapping refers to the broader strategy of laying out ideas in a graphical network. By far, the most well-known practice is mind mapping, popularized by Tony Buzan, where a central theme is circled on a page, and free associations are put down around the theme as nodes in a web. Like the central theme, each node may generate its own associations. Mind mappers are often encouraged to use colored pens to facilitate more emotional associations and contrasts. Some mind maps include drawings.
Other knowledge mapping methods include clustering and concept mapping. Clustering (sometimes called “Rico clustering,” attributing its originator, Gabrielle Rico) retains the idea of free associations radiating outward from a central theme, but encloses each node in a bubble diagram and eschews the drawings, multiple colors are other graphical flourishes of mind maps. Concept mapping is similar to clustering, but labels every link between nodes to make the nodes’ relationships explicit. Concept maps tend to be used for study and analysis rather than brainstorming or project planning.
All of these methods can be done on pen and paper, but there are also software versions. Unlike pen and paper, software knowledge mapping tools usually allow users to attach URLs, documents and other media files to nodes-which can be a big advantage. The dominant mind mapping application is MindManager. Its default line-and-box diagramming style makes it appropriate for clustering as well. For concept mapping, IHMC’s Cmap Tools is solution co-designed and endorsed by the method’s developer, Joseph Novak.
This is my most frequently used method, since I always have the tools necessary to do it at hand. Nonlinear outlining is basically any outlining procedure that permits rapid reordering of elements. I use Microsoft Word’s Outline View to collect and organize my thoughts prior to drafting my posts and articles. I list the elements on separate lines, then reorder them if necessary using Ctrl-Alt | <Up Arrow>
Examples on other platforms would be OmniOutliner on the Mac, or SplashNotes and Bonsai on the Palm. The latter two have desktop components, making it easy to outline on the desktop much like how it would be done in Word; or the outlining can be done directly on the handheld for later synchronization. When I’m away from my laptop, I’ll often create a thumbnail outline on my Palm Centro, then synch it to the desktop for further development.
Some people would claim that some methods, like mind mapping, are vastly superior to outlining. Mind mapping has more graphical allure, but I like to boil thinking operations down to their fewest moving parts, and resist getting caught up in creativity rituals that risk becoming ends in themselves. Try them all, and use the best tool for the job.