String together "lost" ideas.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

When too hurried even to indulge in a little web surfing, I feed the blog furnace by skimming RSS feeds and checking a few aggregation sites. Catching up yesterday with work I had to put off due to illness, I was doing just this when I coincidentally ran into a couple of postings about tackling difficult problems that complemented each other quite well.

The first, by statistician and science blogger John Cook, had me very briefly slapping my own back. He titles it "Avoiding Difficult Problems", and opens by citing a historical example from the book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.

… the National Space Agency didn't suit up an astronaut. Instead their first goal was to hit the moon -- literally. And just over three years later, NASA successfully smashed Ranger 7 into the moon … It took fifteen ever-evolving iterations before the July 16, 1969, gentle moon landing ...

Great scientists, creative thinkers, and problem solvers do not solve hard problems head-on. When they are faced with a daunting question, they immediately and prudently admit defeat. They realize there is no sense in wasting energy vainly grappling with complexity when, instead, they can productively grapple with smaller cases that will teach them how to deal with the complexity to come. [my bold]
Cook is quick to emphasize that this is really a strategy of employing tactical retreats, and not of actually admitting defeat. "That's how I approach things!" I thought for a moment. And then my eyes hit another interesting post title and, shall we say, the smug lifted...

The second post will take me some time to fully digest, even without taking on the reading assignments it gives as "homework" at the end, but it suggests a practice that promises a better way to divide one's attack on a difficult problem -- at least when one doesn't necessarily fully grasp the problem or see how to attack it (or, in some cases, realize one is attempting to solve it). In "How I Learned to Defrag My Brain", Alex Hillman advocates science author Steven Johnson's practice of keeping what he calls a "spark file":
For 8 years, [Johnson has] maintained a single document with notes [and] ideas with zero organization or taxonomy, simply a chronology of thoughts. He calls this document his Spark File.

Once a month, he revisits the ENTIRE Spark File from top to bottom, revisiting old ideas and potentially combing them with newer ideas.

I've adopted this process for the last 30 days and it's had a remarkable effect. The most astounding part is how often I find myself writing the same thing in different ways. I've taken that pattern as a clue to explore a concept further, and see if it merits more investigation.
There is a video at the start of Hillman's post that sketches out Johnson's theory of how innovation occurs. It's fun to watch, but I'm not sure either that I agree with all of it or that it is really necessary to do all the additional reading in the homework to benefit from this kind of practice. Why? Because of an observation Hillman passes on later:
[W]e don't have ideas all at once and we certainly don't have them in any particular order. Perhaps more importantly, we tend to either have a compulsion to act on our ideas immediately, or not at all.
Some kind of ideas journal -- and just as important, discipline about regularly reviewing it -- can obviously go a long way towards saving small mental steps taken during our rushed, modern-day routines, flooded as they are with information and rife with distraction. (And speaking of the latter, such a routine would have the added benefit of reducing distraction by regularly avoiding it for a time each day.) In any event, the defragmentation metaphor hits the nail on the head: This practice can allow a busy or distracted person a chance to knit bits and pieces of his thinking together, rather than losing them simply because he hasn't time to act on them immediately.

As I continue to adjust to having a child in my life, these posts have helped me see that the extra diversions from my creative work have crowded lots of it out of my diminished amount of thinking time.

I'm not sure Johnson's exact approach is right for me, but it is clear that I do need to make a habit of taking down good ideas and thinking about them part of my regular routine. This is indeed a way to "get back" some of the time and focus that I have been missing out on for the past year and a half.

-- CAV

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