idea toothpaste is killing me
August 16, 2011 5:30 AM   Subscribe

What are your tricks for getting your ideas out of your head and down onto paper or the screen?

Whether drafting reports, sketchs, diagrams, the hardest part of any project for me seems to be the transition between ideas in head to ideas on paper/screen.

I have a tendency to get wrapped around the axle of details, struggle with perfectionism, and it seems to take more effort (and time) than it should to get ideas out of my head and onto the screen (or paper).

I'm familiar with the concept of the just-start-typing first draft, which works really well -- as long as I can get the internal editor and voice to shut up. I've used voice recognition software - sometimes speaking is somehow easier than typing. Once I have something to work with, I'm fine, it's just that first step. But it's a big first step, and I need to work this out to be faster and avoid procrastinating because I'm stuck. So help me, hive-mind!

The ideas are in there - it just seems like I have difficulty making that jump from ideas swimming in my head to putting them down.
posted by canine epigram to Work & Money (9 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried Mind Maps? Some people swear by them.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:48 AM on August 16, 2011

Tight deadlines. I will have a draft to you by close of business today or there is no project.
posted by hawthorne at 6:05 AM on August 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: backward guitar: Yep, love 'em.

hawthorne: Ha! I'm trying to avoid relying on those.

tel3path: Ooh. Goodies.
posted by canine epigram at 6:35 AM on August 16, 2011

Turn off the internet. Then do an essay plan in five minutes, just like at school. An introduction framing the question, a list of ideas expressed in a few words for each point you want to make, then a conclusion. Put them in a logical order then lock the door, take the phone off the hook and do a first draft. Don't worry about the content or wording being perfect, just bash away at it till you finish it. This will give you a first draft with a strong structure and so the hardest part is done. You can now edit away, adding bits, taking bits away and even rearranging stuff as appropriate. It's must less intimidating to edit a lot than face a blank page. Editing will transform your report but as it's all baby steps it's easy to do. A final polish for language the day before your deadline and it's done. No fancy software is going to do your work for you though, but you feel a lot better when you take the plunge and get it done.
posted by joannemullen at 6:37 AM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

If perfectionism is the problem, you need to work in a material where you cannot have perfection and then try to let go of that expectation anyway. In other words, you need to start your drafts in crayon on a napkin or with a dull pencil on scrap paper or a post it note where you don't have enough room to get everything down. Then you have something on paper and your subsequent versions then help you tweak and revise in helpful ways.

I teach writing and this problem is a really big one for my students. They want to go from idea to fully formed draft in one go and it just isn't possible. The main problem is that their ideas aren't actually as fully formed as they think (which I can easily find out by asking them a couple of questions about their ideas), so when they're telling me they have an idea and just can't get it down, it usually means they have an inkling of an idea that has a lot of potential rather than a fully formed essay just ready to come out. The drafting process, then, is essential in taking that inkling into a fully formed draft. I've found that the messier the first draft is and the more it forces revision, the better. If you write something on a napkin then write a newer, better version of it on a legal pad, by the time you get to putting it in the computer, you have a third draft done already, which you're editing for improvements as you type it in. Most people can't do that as effectively when they're working in just one document on the computer.

If you really do have the whole essay in your head, you should be able to speak it into a recorder or have someone type as you talk. For most people, that's not the case and they need to go through an extensive drafting process to form the ideas.

I think the same goes for visual stuff. The complications of forming the visual don't appear until you try to get it on paper (where does this line go, how does this label stay out of the way of this piece of data, etc.). In your head, it looks perfect because it's shifty--you're seeing pieces of it that look pretty good, or maybe a nice, neat whole, but not both at once, and complications will arise when you put pen to paper that your brain didn't think of, so, again, the drafting process is essential.

I know most people want technological solutions for these problems (and they work for a lot of people), but sometimes forcing yourself away from those can help you give up the perfectionism block. You know a messy first draft on a napkin can't be perfect, but it helps you get your idea out there in its first iteration. Then you perfect it from there. If you work on the computer first, you end up spending too much time perfecting each little piece because the technology allows that, and you don't end up with a completed whole.

TL:DR--Be messier. Much, much messier.
posted by BlooPen at 7:33 AM on August 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

I found this book recommendation from Seth Godin to help me with thinking about problems and ideas in a more concise manner, specifically by focusing on getting everything down on one sheet of paper without reflecting too much until it was important to reflect. I started to think more about how things are linked together vs. whether or not something would work properly right off the bat -- something that my perfectionism always leads me to want to do.

The other thing that I pulled from the mini-book (it's a very quick read) was that everything should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So when drafting a report or an essay or something this simple to remember structure takes away some of the intimidation of having to "build the scaffolding" of what you're about to write.
posted by thorny at 11:13 AM on August 16, 2011

Get a 60-minute timer, set it for twenty minutes, dive in until the timer goes off. Repeat as necessary. The more often you do this, the easier it will be to start quickly.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:38 PM on August 16, 2011

One thing that stopped a friend from putting it down on paper: his fancy notebook. He didn't want to mess it up. He just uses plain old paper now. Downgrading can help some forms of perfectionism.

Another way to take the pressure off yourself is to shoot an email to an alternate address you own. "Self, I had this idea about a widget and asteroids. Get some background information on drills by 2:30 tomorrow." Or something that puts the general idea down with branches for development tomorrow.
posted by dragonplayer at 5:24 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

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