On Monday, my colleague and I hit “send” to submit our 29-page report on the external assessment we conducted just nine days prior.  How we were able to write it so quickly stems in part from how we structured our work.  I use this process every time I need to organize a project or write anything of length:

1.  Write out each of your thoughts — ONE per index card or piece of scrap paper.  In the case of our assessment, throughout our visit we wrote out on sheets of notebook paper all of the points we wanted to make (in no order whatsoever), then literally cut them up into little strips of paper — ONE thought per strip.  You can write notes over a period of time — they don’t have to to come to you all at once.

2.  Clear a table (or in our case, the hotel bed) and lay them out in piles according to topics.  Make a heading for the pile once a few cards gather in one spot.  (So our headings were things like Structure, Opportunities, Challenges, etc.)

3.  Then put your piles in order as you think they will flow linearly in your report, session, article, etc.

4.  Type up your pile of all the comments in that order.  Wa-la!  You have an outline, with not only the main headings, but all the points you want to make underneath.

5.  Start writing from this.  If something doesn’t flow, you can always move it, but overall you have a structure that will a) get you started and b) provide sub-sections for you to complete and get that dopamine hit to keep you going.

We left the hotel with our outline in hand.  Because I didn’t have to stare at a blank piece of paper or blank computer screen, I started writing even on the plane ride home — just taking the points from my “strips” and turning them into sentences and stringing them together.

I have used this process hundreds of times — it’s how I organize retreats, workshops, articles, projects — and now even the class I will be teaching.  As soon as I know I have a big project, I start collecting notes into a pile as ideas come to me in the days, weeks, or months leading up to the moment I really dig in and start working on something.  It makes all the difference to start with “something” rather than starting from “nothing”, and I can begin without thinking about it.

Our brains don’t work in linear fashion. Even with the miraculous cut-and-paste feature on computers, it is still hard to be random when starting on a document in Word.  Avoid all that frustration and try the “pile” method above.  I guarantee it to be foolproof!

— beth triplett

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