Write it down, find out what you don't know

The brain does amazing things to turn contradiction and inconsistency into a coherent picture. It takes two upside-down images from our retinas and turns them into a single, right-side-up image with depth. It can adjust to physiological experiments that turn everything upside-down and it can fill in the gaps, which makes for fun optical illusions. What our brains are doing is called unconscious inference.

Just as our brain turns our messy visual perception into coherent pictures, it also turns our messy thoughts into coherent understanding. As helpful as this is, it means we are not always understanding things as they are. As our brain fills in the gaps in our thinking, we struggle to see those gaps and address them.

With writing we can expose the gaps in our thinking. We can take the flimsy, messy, idealistic thoughts out of our heads and make them concrete by putting pen to paper. It is in that moment of writing that we reveal the holes in our thought process. We find assumptions we didn't realize we were making; we find big and small contradictions; sometimes our theories completely unravel mid-sentence. Good. The sooner we can uncover these things the better.

Here is a pattern I see consistently in my own work. I run up against a problem. I've experienced problems like this before, so I feel equipped, or at least confident, that I can deal with it. I spend some time going through my mental checklist, but the problem persists. I go through my checklist again. Still no progress. I start pursuing fringe theories despite knowing they are unlikely to turn up anything new. Eventually I give up, decide that it is time to ask for help.

And this is the core of the pattern. I start writing (or typing) a message with a few specific people in mind -- my coworkers whom I hope can help. As I build up the context and lay out what I know, a funny thing often happens. I find something I missed, a small detail or assumption that my brain had helpfully painted over, an inconvenient inconsistency. Sometimes this leaves me with another open question, other times this cracks the case wide open, problem solved.

Writing does this. It's powerful. It's a tool for thought.

Your brain tries to compensate for the gaps in your understanding, making you believe you have a fuller picture than you actually do. It is an illusion. Writing, putting fluid thoughts into concrete words, on paper, shatters the illusion.

This is why I always try to be vigilant for the moments where a problem is getting away from me. I stop thinking and start writing.

Writing out debugging steps. Writing down outcomes and tasks as part of GTD. Writing down reading notes in your own words. Writing down the details of a misunderstanding you've had with someone else. It helps you see more clearly.

Get out a pen and paper, because with that clarity you can move forward.

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