My current thought book


Here’s an image that illustrates core features of my current “thought book”.
The image illustrates a double page from this A3 notebook.
What follows is a list of remarks on the method.

What is the purpose of the method?

  • I use the thought book to think about things I find interesting. It is the crucial tool for my sessions of “deep thinking”.

What is the hardware? A notebook and pens

  • I use an A3 notebook with an 0.5 cm square grid, so a double page has roughly 80x60 squares.
  • I use pens with a “fine” = F steel tip, currently in black, blue and red. They do not smear, and I can write with ease smallish letters one square high.

What is the layout? Main axis and units of thought

  • I use two vertical lines on the left and in the middle of each A3 page, so on a double page I have four vertical lines. These four lines form the “main axis” for my note-making.
  • The main axis is organized in “units of thought”. These units start and end with a squiggly horizontal line and they are (usually) characterized by having three phases: (1) F = Setting a focus - what is it I want to consider in this unit? (2) A = Action - what is it I want to do about the focus topic? Normally, I want to dvelop new ideas, or I want to analyze or to better understand it. (3) R = Reflection - what are my thoughts looking back at the unit so far? Are there “itches” I feel uncomfortable about? Are there open questions? Are there conflicts I should resolve? More on this later.
  • The text notes for my thinking are indented as illustrated and thus show clear hierarchies.
  • For better orientation, I underline relevant headlines in red.
  • I can use indented text or linear text or mind maps or diagrams or formulas.

Useful practices: Writing and thinking

  • A major part of my thinking happens in units of thought and I fill columns 1, 2 and 3.
  • However, I can record spontaneous side ideas at the bottom of column 4, moving UPWARDS with these notes. This feels natural after some practice.
  • In the same spirit, I can use footnotes in columns.
  • I can write down notes for a different train of thoughts in another column - normally, I use column 4 for this.

Remarks on the thinking process: Phases F-A-R

  • I start a unit of thought with a squiggly line and the “operator” F = focus. When I am interested in a focus on “progress”, I can write “F / OP” = focus on progress. Similarly, I can use “focus on results” or “focus on visions” - these variations lead to different flavours of my thinking progress.
  • I can then state the focus that seems most relevant to me. I do not worry too much to find the “optimal” focus - there will be the next unit of thought with the next focus, and I can re-focus there.
  • With the stated focus often comes a first set of ideas or of questions - I write them down and work them out. If nothing comes to my mind, things get even more interesting - I can then use another operator like “DP” = “describe the problem” and find out why things are difficult.
  • In most cases, I do NOT use the “A” = “action” phase explicitly. But I CAN do this when I want to have some thoughts which of several options I should use.
  • When I feel that I’ve found some relevant ideas on the focus, I can start the next phase “R” = “reflection”. Usually, I start with a sub-operator “R / IT” = “reflection / what are the itches here?” and list the items I feel uncomfortable about. Sometimes, I find a quick solution. In other cases, I can make these things the focus of another unit of thought.
  • Normally, I find enough material for several items of reflection. When this R phase seems “exhausted”, I finish the current unit of thought with another squiggly line and start the next unit of thought.

Thanks, Thomas, for keeping this forum alive! I keep being fascinated by you paper-based note-taking process.

How do you cross-reference your thought units? I remember that previous photos of your sheets contained IDs.

Do you somehow index (digitally or by analogue means) your sheets?

Personally, I’d miss searching my notes, or do you scan/OCR your sheets?

Also, my handwriting would probably not be legible enough (not even for myself). Yours is very legible, though.

Thanks, Matthias.

My (obsessive) focus is on “writing for insights” / “Schreibdenken” in German. My main interest is the process of “thinking on paper” itself, so I spend too little time on storage and retrieval. The various PKM communities seem to cover that very well.

The illustration itself in column 4, bottom, mentions references via “IX: 62: 3c” for notebook IX, page 62, column 3, block c from the four vertical blocks a, b, c, d in a column. (Crossindexing between numbered notebooks however is not some thing I use myself.)

My handwriting on paper is worse than my digital handwriting, where I zoom in and write in large letters which look neat after zooming out.

The background for many of these ideas is my fascination with historical practices. Newton and Leibniz and Feynman are famous “insight-writers” from a much much larger group, the late Maryam Mirzakhani is a more recent example.
One of the most relevant inspirations for me is, ta-da, Adam Riese - he presented a well-defined algorithm to support computations on paper, and I’m interested in more or less formalized frameworks that support more general thinking processes. I like the idea of having a general framework where I can plug in specific “modules” to think more specifically about math problems or philosophical problems or to write a short story.
The text above has an emphasis on layout and the basics of “units of thought”, but the illustration itself mentions ideas on tools, tool boxes, “engines” of thinking processes (= sequences of thinking operators that reliably propel the thinking process) and how all this can co-evolve with the person using them.

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