Create offline, analyze online

Sitting at a computer changes the way you think. You need to know when to walk away from the computer and when to come back.

I think mind mapping software is a bad idea. Mind maps are supposed to capture free associations. But the very act of sitting down at a computer puts you in an analytical frame of mind. In other words, mind mapping is a right-brain activity, but sitting at a computer encourages left-brain thinking. Mind mapping software might be a good way to digitize a map after you’ve created it on paper, but I don’t think it’s a good way to create a map.

When I need to sort out projects and priorities, I do it on paper. After that I may type up the results. I like to capture ideas on paper or on my voice recorder but then store them online.

When I do math, I scribble on paper, then type up my results in LaTeX. Scribbling helps me generate ideas; LaTeX helps me find errors. I’ve found that fairly short cycles of scribbling and typing work best for me, a few cycles a day.

In the past, we did a lot of things on paper because we had no choice. Today we do a lot of things on computers today just because we can. It’s going to take a while to sift through the new options and decide which ones are worthwhile and which are not.

Recommended books

Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind has a good discussion of left-brain versus right-brain thinking. As he points out, the specialization between the left and right hemispheres of the brain is more complicated than once thought. However, the terms “left-brain” and “right-brain” are still useful metaphors even if they’re not precise neuroscience.

Also, to read more on how computers influence our thinking, see Andy Hunt’s book Pragmatic Thinking and Learning.

Related posts

A stimulating work environment
Living within chosen limits
Tim Bray’s high-tech monastic cell
What’s wrong with paper?
Getting to the bottom of things

11 thoughts on “Create offline, analyze online

  1. A computer may not be as good at fostering creativity as a piece of paper… But I’ve found that doing “things” on the computer can help me focus on “what I’m doing” rather than “how I’m doing it”. For example, if I whip up a tree in FreeMind, it’s easy for me to reorder things until it’s “right”. To do the same on paper, though, needs a pair of scissors or a whole lot of scrap.

    To me, that process of “cut it out, move it around, rearrange everything so it fits” is very distracting.

  2. “But the very act of sitting down at a computer puts you in an analytical frame of mind.” John, it may be true for you, but it’s not a universal phenomenon. Twittering, Photoshopping, tag hopping on Flickr, searching Google Images by colors, playing World of Warcraft, using Visual Thesaurus and, yes, mind mapping are just a few examples of my computer-based right-brain activities. It is true that the history of computer is heavily text-based, the inheritance that is hard to overcome in general architecture and application development. But it’s getting much better with time. For me, the left-right threshold was crossed about three years ago.

    We still have to be vigilant to the issue you raised, though. Some mind-mapping software is certainly too linear.

  3. I envy your ability to provoke responses.
    In general, I agree that getting away from the computer is a good thing (very much related to your GTD post) — however — I do think that tools like Freemind can be very useful in certain circumstances:
    * Analytically breaking a complex and unorganized mass of something (for me, often this means client goals or requirements from multiple people) into a meaningful structure. I can create the tree true to its original non-structure then move, simplify, expand, etc.. until it starts to make sense to me, then re-present to validate or clarify. Paper is good, but it doesnt have cut and paste (which I use quite a bit).
    * Related to the above, taking notes from people who ramble. I prefer paper for organized and clear speakers (especially because I can quickly draw diagrams), but for people who touch on a topic, jump to something unrelated, or simply lose their train of thought, the ability to move things around helps me make sense of people less blessed in the public speaking department. If I dont know which its going to be, I usually err on the side of caution and stick with a mind map (Freemind in my case as well).

    I should also say that whiteboards can be similarly effective if they’re large and convenient enough. I once worked for a woman who carried one with her the way most people carry a notebook. Writing it down was enough to commit it to memory (or so she would say).

  4. @Gene: I really like LyX as a LaTeX editor (in fact, I type all my math in LyX, even when I’m just “tinkering” or taking notes… It’s faster and more accurate than my writing by hand)

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