Writers’ Bootcamp: Organizing Intrusive Thoughts

Let’s set the scene: The house is empty (significant others are gone for several hours).  The house is spic-and-span clean.  The laundry is washed, folded, and put away.  The garage is organized and the gutters have been cleared.  The yard is mowed and the bills are paid.  You have snacks.  You have hot coffee.  You are wearing your most comfortable clothes.  Your hair is pulled back off your face (if you are like me, anyway).  The room temperature is a perfect 76 degrees (F).  Your research is where you can reach it.  Your pencils are sharpened and your pens work.  You have paper.  You have removed all distractions from your workspace.  You have settled down to write.

It’s then—when the conditions to write are perfect—that you start to think about your child’s soccer game, retrieving that obscure book that only one library in the nation holds, emailing an administrative assistant about a travel reimbursement, picking up your dry cleaning, applying for a national grant, updating your bibliographic software, or buying pretzels for next week’s party.  It’s a problem that all writers face:  how to tame those intrusive thoughts, especially when those thoughts are important.

One way to tame an intrusive thought is to put it on sticky note and put that note in a place where you won’t lose it.  Jot down these important ideas so you don’t forget, then get back to writing.  That sounds easy enough, but putting them on a simple sticky note might not be enough.  How might you organize those intrusive thoughts so that you can (1) get back to writing and (2) eventually accomplish the sticky note task?  You might want to try “the Falling Tree Method.”

The Falling Tree Method is a way to rank those sticky notes on a chart so you can get back to your writing.  Will the task take you a lot of time?  Is it important to your work?  Some of these tasks can be easily delegated (eventually to those absent significant others in your household, for example).  Some are important to your career, and can’t be delegated.  The point here is to write down the thought, rank it in some manner, and get back to work.

In the graphic below, both the vertical (“Impact on your Business”) and horizontal (“Investment of Time and Money”) axes have high / low ranges.  By placing your intrusive-thought sticky notes on the grid according to how much time the task will take or how important it is to your work helps you know what to do with it….when you get to that task.  For example, buying pretzels has a low impact on your work and it doesn’t take much resource to accomplish, so that sticky note is in the low range (delegate!).  Applying for a national grant, as another example, requires much time and intellectual thought and it’s important to your work, so it goes into the “high” range.

So what does this have to do with a “falling tree”?  The red line below–as the “tree”—can demonstrate an arc as it falls.  Those to-do items along the high range of the arc are the tasks you will do later, after you’ve accomplished your writing.  The items that fall below that arc are the tasks that can wait or they are items that can be delegated to others.

The point is to make note of those intrusive thoughts, write them down, place them on a grid, then get back to the writing.  This process can take seconds of your time.  But most importantly, you have captured those random thoughts, and since the environment for writing is so perfect, you can get back that important task of writing.

How about you? How do you capture random thoughts as you write, thoughts that you want to act upon at a later time?  Please leave comments and suggestions below.

[Header image by Flickr user Ramshing and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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