Just Write, part 2

6 years ago, I wrote a piece called “Just Write”, in which a younger version of myself explains how grabbing pen & paper and writing down the stream of thoughts going around in our minds helps clarify these thoughts into connected, organized concepts. Here’s an excerpt:

Grab a pen. Write down everything that’s on your mind.

You don’t really know how to start it off. “Just start”, as the saying goes. Write down the first thing that comes to your mind. Anything, really. Start with the one thing that stresses you out the most. Explain it in detail.

After a dozen lines of disorganized bits of thoughts, something happens: your synapses connect and information rushes through your brain. You understand your thoughts, you spot patterns.

A few more lines later, your mind feels clearer. Everything shapes up. You feel at peace. You keep writing.

Evergreen content. This is still valid, and will likely always be.

Simply putting the mind on the task of writing requires to it organize itself to better convey what it wants to share, hence helping itself silence the noise.

Since publishing this post 6 years ago, I developed the habit of writing things down when I start to feel overwhelmed. This is one of the best habits I put in place since then, as it lets me identify what I need to focus on the most. Combined with a bit of stoic philosophy, writing lets me clear my mind and redirect the noise towards action.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed, my first reflex is to grab a pen and paper (quick! gotta write this down otherwise I won’t remember it all). If I don’t have pen/paper nearby I’ll go for the closest note-taking device around, which is usually my smartphone with the excellent Standard Notes app. Once I’m ready to write, I listen to the thoughts in my mind, pick the one that screams the loudest, and write down what I hear. I don’t go in much detail about it—I just write until the thought is tired to scream and eventually silences itself. Then I move on to the next thought in line.

I write every item one by one, just to get it out of my brain. I don’t even write full sentences, mostly keywords and basic sentences. The goal of the exercise is just to write down whatever comes to mind to free it from there and stop wasting precious energy.

Eventually, there won’t be any more thoughts waiting in line to scream anything. There won’t be anything else to write down.

At this point, it’s time to triage what was written down, and that’s the fun part. That’s where it all pays off.

First, I identify the items I can’t do anything about: the non-actionable items. My lists often include a few of these, which is a sign I tend to worry about things I cannot control. The good thing about these items is that the actionable is simple: acknowledge and move on promptly. A few examples:

  • Waiting for someone to complete something we need to continue working (they won’t go faster if we worry about it)
  • Worrying about the weather for our next weekend adventure (we really can’t blow those clouds away ourselves)
  • Thinking about something embarrassing we did years ago (nothing we can do about that anymore)

Then, I look at the remaining items (which should all be actionable somehow, even if indirectly so) and figure out how to tackle them individually. Every single one of these items gets its own action step aiming to return to a healthy, stable state of mind (cognitive consonance!). Here are a few examples and their action items:

  • Reach out to someone we forgot to message back
  • Don’t forget to take out the trash tomorrow
  • Clean bikes before road trip
  • Backup computers

At this point, our minds are clear, and we have a concrete list of actionables to tackle. Then, we repeat the exercise when we feel overwhelmed again.

David Perell strongly believes that writing (online) is the biggest opportunities in the world today. I think writing (offline) is an equally powerful opportunity for our own mental health. Or as Anne-Laure Le Cunff would write, “mental wealth”. When we combine the two by writing online (to share thoughts, remix ideas, get feedback) and offline (to recharge, reflect, reset), and we get a pretty powerful life-building habit.