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A Labor Day insight: Zen and the art of web writing

September 6, 2010

I posted the following cerebral joke on my Twitter page today:

We celebrate Labor Day by shirking work. On a normal Monday, I’d work hard to parse the irony. Today, I’ll just let it go–too much work.

Instead of parsing the irony, I mowed the lawn just in time to beat the rain. But while I was mowing, my brain went to work on the irony. This is what my brain came up with while I focused on getting a nice argyle pattern in my back yard.

For the past couple of months, I have been collecting articles about how to find the creative energy to write well in the face of the information overload that is the norm of our generation. I knew at some point I wanted to write a blog post about it. The harder I thought about it, the less clear it seemed to me. So I’ve written about all kinds of other aspects of writing for the web in the hopes that an insight will come to me. Somehow admiring the argyle pattern in my lawn triggered an eureka moment.

The best article I have found came in just this morning from a Psychology Today blog. Dr. David Rock spells out some simple things we can do to have more insights. The more insights you share in your writing, the more successful you will be. So learning how to have more insights is a key to writing success. The upshot of the article is that the reason people don’t find insightful solutions to problems is they focus too hard on them. Only by stepping away from the problem and finding a quiet place to relax and ponder do we give our brains the opportunity to develop insightful solutions.

I will return to that article in a moment. But first I want to focus on a New York Times article about how we deprive our brains of this needed downtime when we insist on filling every moment of our days with digital information, on smart phones, computers and even iPods. Somehow our need to be more productive with every moment of every day has created a culture of constant digital processing. As I rode the CalTrain from Mountain View to San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, this culture was most evident to me. I was content to sit and watch the towns speed by on the bullet. But almost everyone else on the packed train was busy finger scrolling on a smart phone or tapping on a laptop. I felt like my brain already had too much to deal with after leaving Google’s offices. But others who had equally stressful days felt the need to pack their time with more information.

I call this Zen and the art of web writing because your writing will be more successful if you don’t think too hard about your topics of interest. This is the central premise of Zen philosophy. But I don’t want to analyze this too deeply for fear that I will force the reader to think too much. I just want to give you some practical tips on how to cultivate insights to fuel more effective writing.

1. Step away from your computer

Go for a walk. Go for a drive. Go to a gym (without technology). Work in the garden. Practice an instrument. Do something that forces you to focus on something other than the problem you are trying to solve. According to Dr. Rock, we have most of our insights when we are not intently focused on the problem we are trying to solve.

The reason for this is that usually insights happen because we become stuck at an impasse. The impasse tends to involve a small set of solutions that we have become fixed on. The more we work on this same wrong solution, the more we prime the brain for that solution and the harder it is to think of new ideas.

When we step away from our intense problem solving typical of our workstation and focus on something else, we give our brains a chance to consider alternative solutions. These are the solutions that we sometimes call “outside the box”. In other words, these are the insightful solutions.

2. Go to a quiet place

One of the most stultifying technologies is the most ubiquitous–the iPod. If we fill our brains with music 24X7, we never give it a chance to quietly reflect. In essence, we are bombarding our brains with noise. We are not letting our brains express the music that comes to mind. This music is a function of a healthy brain. For example, while I was mowing, for no apparent reason, the Eagle’s song “Take it Easy” was playing in my head. I didn’t know why at the time. But as I listen to it now, the reason seems simple. My brain was trying to solve a problem and the solution can be found in that song. “Lighten up, if you still can. Don’t even try to understand.” Music is a way for us to remember hidden insights. As Dr. Rock says:

An insight is often a long forgotten memory or a combination of memories…. The trouble is, we only notice signals above whatever our base line of noise is.

If we force our brains to hear music that is unrelated to the problem we are trying to solve, we only invoke irrelevant memories, which become noise to our brains. This impedes insights. So take off the ear buds and let your brain play the music it needs to untie the knot at the center of your impasse.

3. Avoid the trap of anxiety

The biggest source of friction in problem solving is anxiety. We all have so many things to worry about: Deadlines, bills, artificial milestones, performance goals, health issues, etc. These become a jumble of noise that prevent our brains from focusing on the solutions to our problems. Telling you to stop worrying is easier said than done, I know. It all starts with letting go. You can’t solve all your problems at once. You have to take them one at a time. While you’re doing that, it just doesn’t help to worry about your other problems. Let them go. Offer them up to a higher power. Do whatever it takes to think about happy solutions to them. Anxiety just doesn’t help.

I know this sounds like a lot of pop psychology. But it is based on some of the best research we have about how brains work. On this Labor Day, treat yourself to some quiet downtime and let your brain work the way it was designed to work. You just might have an insight that becomes the center of a fresh blog post.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2010 10:27 pm

    Totally agree James, the more time I spend away from my computer, the better I am at my job!

    Not thinking about a problem is essential if you’re going to solve it. We all need to be better at letting our subconscious come to realisations without forcing it or distracting it with noise.

    If you haven’t read ‘Enough’ by John Naish, you should give it a go. Brilliantly tackles the issues of information overload in the modern world. I try to step away as much as possible, but it can be difficult.

    We don’t celebrate Labor Day here in the UK, but I’ll give your tips my best shot anyway!


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