January 20, 2010

Order out of chaos

My mind works through association rather than logic or reason. When I run those miles over the roads there is all the while a stream of consciousness, a torrent of ideas, coursing through my brain. One idea after another goes hurtling past like so much white water. Giving me here and there a new insight, a new intuition, a new understanding. Each in turn soon replaced by yet another thought, still another idea.

At those times I can believe Erich Segal’s story of wanting to dash up to a house and ask for a pen and paper to write a thought down. For he knew as surely as I that the thought, however clear, would soon be forgotten. And since there is no logical progression, no amount of reasoning would bring it back.

~ George Sheehan - Running and Being

When I am out on the roads, thoughts rush through my mind in a similar fashion. Like a free-association exercise where no idea is a bad idea, the mind just throws them out in succession to see what sticks. It can be wonderful to watch how the mind moves from one thought to another, and it takes me to interesting places. Unfortunately, the thoughts don't always stick, and revelations get left at the side of the road.

I am battling insomnia again this week. I have been up past 3:00am the last few nights. Though I am physically tired, I just can't seem to find the off switch for my brain.

I usually read for an hour or so before turning off the light. This usually helps clear my mind so I can shut it down for the night. Lately, I have been having trouble keeping thoughts at bay even when I am reading. They feel like a multitude of hands tapping me on the shoulder while I am trying to concentrate. When the book is put down and the lights go out, the thoughts wash over me. Sometimes there is a particular issue weighing on me that won't go away quietly, but at others it is just a stream of thoughts pinging around from subject to unrelated subject.

When I land on something of value, I try to write it down to get it out of my head before it is pushed out by the next free-association. Getting it down on paper seems to help quiet the mind a bit. I do this during the day as well, because even when awake those "brilliant" thoughts don't always stick with me. For a while I carried a small notebook with me, but it wasn't always practical. I've ended up with thoughts written on the back of receipts and any other scrap of paper I can find.

What I ended up with was basically a hundred little post-it notes scattered between my truck, pockets and bedside. Not the best system and it only adds to the feeling of disarray. I needed a new system.

What I have been using for the past couple of months is a Microsoft program called OneNote. It is kind of a digital version of the notebook, but with lots of advantages over the paper version. Like a thousand little post-its, you can take random notes on the page. The advantage is now you can cut & paste, and drag & drop your random thoughts and put them in some order. Like a notebook, there are separate pages, sections and binders to help organize your thoughts. Notes can can also be marked with various tags so it is easy to find that random thought later on. And if you forget to tag it, a quick search can find that buried note.

It is also a great tool for research. You can take screen clippings from websites that are then pasted into OneNote. A hyperlink to the website is also attached to the clipping so you can refer back to the original article. In the past I had used browser bookmarks to stash interesting articles, but they have grown to a point where it is difficult to see them amid the clutter.

In addition to text and webshots, you can put drawings, pictures, tables and audio notes into your work pages. OneNote is also integrated with the other Office products as well. If you tag something as a task in OneNote, it pops up in Outlook to remind you. Once you mark it as complete, it is updated in both places. Like Word and Excel, there are probably more cool features than I will ever use.

So, how does this help me when I'm not in front of my computer? There's an app for that. OneNote also has a mobile version that I have on my phone. When a thought strikes, I can make a note of it before it disappears. When I sync/update my phone, the notes pop up in OneNote. As I have been struggling with insomnia lately, I have been keeping my phone by my bedside for those 3:00am deep thoughts (with the ringer off of course). As for when I'm out running, I may need to carry a pen to jot notes on my hand. The original Palm Pilot.

I am hoping that by using OneNote, I can reduce the physical and mental clutter in my life, and capture that epiphany when it happens. And get some sleep.

Not part of the Microsoft Office family? There is also a free online program called EverNote that sounds very similar.

No comments: