Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Questioning My Assumptions: Top-less Writing

by Andre · 2 Comments

Last week, I switched to a paper organizer to manage my calendar and action lists, and found that I got nearly twice as much done as usual. During that week, a couple of computer problems converged to prevent me from using my laptop for writing, forcing me to work around the issue by writing exclusively on my Alphasmart Neo or a legal pad. After experiencing the results, I’m not inclined to go back to writing on the laptop.

Back in the early Nineties, when a desktop was my only computer, I always drafted in longhand. When I finally got the laptop I coveted for so long, it took me a few months to notice how much my writing output had declined. But I ignored this, attributing the slowdown to other factors. Now that I’ve more or less ditched the laptop again, the productivity boost is too striking to ignore. I think this is the case for multiple reasons, but for now I want to focus on one: batched output.

Output Focused Tools

The first day I abandoned the laptop for a legal pad, I wrote an entire product review in just over two hours — about a third of the time it normally takes. The first step involved removing a mental block that always kept me coming back to the laptop: contingencies. Hovering in peripheral consciousness was always the nagging question, “But what if I need to look up something?”

Looking things up midstream is the ultimate crutch activity. Before the age of persistent connection, I wrote hundreds of thousands of words without it ever occurring to me that I couldn’t continue without slotting in a missing piece of information.

I usually restructured the writing to do without the information, which was often gratuitous anyway, especially if it didn’t come to mind before I started writing. Otherwise I would simply make a note to look it up after I finished my draft, adding it retroactively. A draft that’s structurally coherent can withstand a few holes in the edifice that need to be filled in afterward. I realized that I had lost my ability to act on incomplete information.

Batched Output

A legal pad, typewriter or dedicated word processor immediately dispenses with input. There’s no option to look things up, check email, click on a link, or indulge in anything that can bring information in to alleviate anxiety or act as surrogate intellectual activity. When looking things up is not possible, or at least not convenient, it’s obvious when there’s thinking that still needs to be done. Reflexive searching is like nibbling at a candy bar to stave off genuine hunger with a sugar rush.

Using tools that facilitate output exclusively prevents what Moshe Feldenkrais called cross-motivation. He used this in the context of body movement education, noticing that people whose movements lack fluidity typically actuate the flexors and extensors of the same limb simultaneously rather than inhibit the opposing muscle group. I believe that to maximize output we need to simultaneously minimize input. The best way to do this is to handle multiple output tasks as a batched process, temporarily cutting off input channels.


Some GTD practitioners use a context list called @Writing for their outlines and drafts. I’ve resisted this, preferring to restrict contexts to specific physical locations. Now it’s apparent that @Computer is not a workable context for my writing, and since I divide my writing between the legal pad and the Neo, I added the @Writing context to cover both media.

This works remarkably well, since nothing can go on that list until any dependencies are out of the way. I have to get my ducks in a row before making “writing” a next action. If I need to reference information to support my writing, I have to look it up, print it and add it to my Action Support folder so that I can write offline; then I have everything I need to define an @Writing next action.

An ongoing experiment

My current goal is to get to the point of batching input, in this case being online, to one hour per day. I still have to email articles, drop blog posts into WordPress, and look up source material to print, but I’m trying to streamline the process to keep my connectivity to an optimal minimum. It’s been an awkward but interesting process so far, and I’m anxious to see how this experiment in progressive unplugging progresses.

Tags: Questioning My Assumptions


  • VeredNo Gravatar // Jun 16, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    Fascinating! Let us know how it goes. I just can’t see myself limiting connectivity that much, but I just might be inspired by you to limit it somewhat.

  • GeorgeNo Gravatar // Nov 5, 2008 at 9:23 pm

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