One Level At A Time

· gtd · productivity ·

I’m writing a theoretical paper for work at the moment with some colleagues, and am having a terrible time with it. The deadline is looming up as we speak, but because I’ve been busy with other things, and the topic is huge and difficult to get to grips with, I have been making very slow progress on it. One of the colleagues I am writing it with suggested that I try tackling it using a particular technique. I don’t know if this technique has a name, but I’m fairly sure I’ve encountered an idea like it before. For whatever reason, I hadn’t thought of applying it to this paper, but it has worked like a charm.

The idea is that you write down a small number of main points that you want to make in your paper: let’s say 5 points, but it could be any reasonably small number. Then you take each of those 5 points, and write down the 5 points expanding on the top level point. Finally, you take each of the second level points, and write down 5 sub-points for those. It’s not rocket science, by any means, but it worked really well for me, for two reasons:

  1. It forces you to focus on what you actually want to say at the overview level, before you get bogged down in all the interesting detail.
  2. It’s a very unintimidating way to start writing. You only have to write 5 things to start with, or 5 sentences or so. And that’s really easy. Then you focus on writing 5 sub-points for the first, and so on. At any one time, you’re just thinking about writing 5 things, so your brain doesn’t get time to think, “Help! I only have a week to write a really complex, long paper, and I have no idea what I’m going to write. Aaaargghhh!”

I don’t know if it would work for all kinds of writing, but it’s certainly worth trying if you have something relatively unstructured to write and you don’t quite know how to start it.

Meanwhile, back to the paper…