The danger of a black hole | "Getting Things Done" vs. "Getting Things Out"

I use notebooks extensively to write down my thoughts, to think about projects, to sketch, to jot down ideas... and I've always thought this way better than anything digital for the same purpose. There are great singular apps that are really focused on GTD ("getting things done") – and I use them too of course, they're fantastic – but I think writing and sketching in notebooks is simply for a different kind of situation, one that does not need to be solved by "getting things done". 

Writing and sketching by hand is more geared towards what I would call GTO, or "getting things out" (of my brain) in the most easy and efficient way. And to me, nothing beats paper and pencil at this.


Of course, there are also many great ways to keep your notebook organised, most notably the all encompassing Bullet Journal and the deceptively simple Dash/Plus System... and I'm sure there must be many more. And of course I've tried these. But again, they're not solving the point described above: they're great for Getting Things Done, but not geared towards Getting Things Out. I think GTD should happen in different moments than GTO, maybe even effectively one leading to the other, as natural extensions of one another. 


You shouldn't be bothered with organising in any way while trying to put ideas on paper, while trying to think about a concept, while getting thoughts out of your head. It's already hard enough to get them out of your head (however disorganised they are), you shouldn't be forcing your brain to think along the lines of a system (any system) while the priority is simply to get things out. Organising those thoughts has to be done indeed, but should only come at a later stage.

It would be like photographing and having a perfect contact sheet at the same time... it's kind of impossible... unless you're pure genius of course.

With photography it's exactly the same thing: a story usually gets built later. When you're photographing, you shouldn't be worried about the structure. Letting things flow, and having just the basic plot of the story in your mind is more than enough. Not only will it give you tremendous freedom, it will also allow other angles to pop up because you're open to things happening along the way. I'm speaking of long term projects here, because I keep in mind that if I find something or things go off in a different, maybe better direction, I always have the chance to come back again next time.

On the other hand, if you know you only have one shot, the chance of a lifetime right there and then, then for god's sake, please make sure you get the shot.

And eventually, slowly, you will start connecting dots, building structure. But still, I'd recommend to approach and err on the side of "disorganised writing/shooting and connecting dots later", as opposed to "setting yourself a rigid structure and employing rigid writing/shooting". Obviously both are valid approaches, and some days you'll favour one over the other, but in my case, if I can stand the uncertainty of maybe not delivering, I like the former much more. It's like taking little leaps of faith every time. In a way, being rigid about not being rigid.


Now this brings me to the next problem: How can I organise my thoughts after the fact? Weeks later, I can hardly tear pages from my books and bring elements together. I have kind of a feeling that a notebook should not be (substantially) altered afterwards, in order to respect the spirit and the time it has been written in. But on the other had, I need to be able to revisit my thoughts in a semi-efficient way, so as not that these notebooks become little black holes that suck up my thoughts only never to release them again.

Enter the little round stickers.

Deceptively simple, I just add a little round sticker on a page by something that I need to remember, or need to come back to. more stickers means more important. That's all there is to it. Nothing more, nothings less.

Come to think of it, photographers sometimes used to use these very same stickers to mark the selects on their contact sheets (although the red crayon/marker is probably the superior solution there)


To summarise: always be aware of the difference between getting things done and getting things out. They both are necessary, but warrant a different approach and should be avoided being mixed up. To "get things out", I try to do this:

  • create the shortest possible path: avoid everything that stops or hinders the pure flow from your brains to the paper. I barely even use a title or a date, I keep on forgetting
  • the shortest possible path means the thing you know best and can do instinctively: writing, sketching, pen or pencil on paper. Everything else is just a collection of micro-interruptions to your thoughts getting out.
  • the importance of turning a page, and sharpening a pencil
  • make sure your environment is conductive to what you are doing, but remember: it's not always what you think and it changes often: locking yourself away in a cabin in the mountains is not by definition going to make you think better. Thinking is a social, interactive process, and every project, even every mood, can warrant a different physical place. Just be aware of this, it's very subtle.
  • to facilitate revisiting thoughts – a crucial phase – use red dots extensively. Also, every time when revisiting, be prepared to move, remove or add red dots as realities might have changed... hence the stickers.



p.s. In regards to GTD, so many people much smarter than me have written about this... I would say: pick and choose your system, change regularly just to flex your brain. In this realm, going digital really shines, and many apps are really amazing..