Dealing with Thought Projects

Getting Things Done introduced me to the concept of knowledge work and much of what I’m currently challenging myself with in my personal life are high altitude thoughts and concepts that exist at this “knowledge worker” level. How do you process a high altitude project like “What should be the next step in my career path?” or while reading Julien Smith’s Flinch, “What do I want to do with my life but am avoiding just because I’m scared?”?

Solving for these greater questions is often a process of finding other questions you need answers for and answering those (while making other discoveries). You struggle to ask yourself the right questions because you’re not sure what you’re trying to accomplish. There’s very little of anything tangible for you to do yet a list grows of things—thoughts—you want to get done. Thoughts build up in your mind without being captured because most of them are fleeting notions that you don’t know what to do with. Let’s call these “thought projects”.

Thought projects can be all-consuming and often the deep notional realm rips you out of reality. When in the middle of these projects, so much time is spent just purely thinking about it that it drives you crazy. I need a way to fix this so thoughts can translate into something useful and ideas can flow together into larger notions that can influence actions.

GTD uses projects as a way to manage things that have depth and multi-step actions so there must be a way to adapt the workflows and systems I have for tangible ones to manage thought projects. Projects can be tracked and reviewed and the goal is that the whole system is something you have confidence in but when dealing with notions I don’t have a system I trust. Right now, a lot of these questions and ideas go into my Field Notes and though I go back through them as part of my weekly review, I don’t know how to process them. I’m not convinced it makes sense to create projects in Things.app to deal with these thought projects since the constraints it introduces limit where my mind will naturally wander. I also wonder whether limiting scope on notional projects is the right process since pushing thoughts past their usual end-point is the only way to come to a greater conclusion.

Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid to studying and organizing information, solving problems, making decisions, and writing.

Mind Mapping, Wikipedia

There’s a chance that mind mapping is the proper system to organize these thoughts but I’m hesitant to invest in it. I’ve never done much mind mapping, with the closest thing being a lot of information architecture white-boarding, since I’ve yet to see a really graceful, simple, and efficient mind mapping tool that fits with the way I capture and explore these ideas. Thoughts usually happen when I’m in the middle of something else and launching an app, finding the right spot in a spider web of ideas (on a 4” screen) then finally writing it out before the idea disappears doesn’t seem like a good way to go about it. I thought maybe Clear, a new simple list app, might work for me but besides it’s not very functional, chrome-free interface, the inability to nest lists/ideas like you would with mind map limited its usefulness for me.

I don’t want to waste time playing around with tools when I’d rather be working on these projects but right now I’m stuck without a system and am driving myself crazy. Who knows, maybe thoughts.txt is right solution?