Why getting ideas out of your head is hard, and how to make it easier

Note: I think all these mostly applies to non-fiction, long-form, semi technical writing.

To-do: put more concrete examples to make this piece less abstract as a whole.

internal landfill

different people work differently. Cal Fussman doesn’t need to break down his writing process into concepts https://www.writingroutines.com/cal-fussman/

Getting ideas out of your head is hard

There is too much to say and it goes in all directions. Writing is the process of reducing and simplifying this complexity. You decide what to say and where to put it. It involves breaking down the complexity, dividing the problem up and then looking for logical sequences. – Ted Nelson in Reading and Writing Parallel, 1 minute in

It boils down to two things:

  1. Speaking and writing is compressing and linearising thinking.
  2. Thoughts are not sequential.


Thinking (should it technically be “thoughts”? “consciousness”? OK let’s not go there…) is this interconnected jumbled process, a complex network of magic. Bits and pieces swirling around, bumping into each other, flashing in different resolution at your mind’s eye from a million different directions at different speed.

How do you catch the dragon by its tail? Can you even see the dragon? Is it really a dragon or is it a lizard once you confronted and shined your flashlight at it?

It’s one thing trapping what is already inside your head as words. It’s another thing to spot the missing pieces, go out and seek the blocks and blobs that might fit.

Then you’d try to synthesise, evaluate, and fit all of these together in one yarn-ball of an idea before you start chipping away the excess to get to a coherent speech or writing.

Often the process is also not linear. It’s an iteration. You expand it, you chip it away. You branch out, you trim it again.


The same idea can be tweeted out, shared as an Instagram caption, written as an essay, riffed off in a podcast, or expanded into a book.

Getting to the right amount of length, depth, and breadth for the right context and medium is an art.

Do I know what I want to say? Do I know what I think I know?

Here we are assuming we already have an idea to put out. But actually most of the time you only have a rough unverified feeling, opinion, hypothesis. And only by trying to write about it, you come to the fully formed idea.

The idea is the outcome, not the cause.

I love it then I start writing with one idea and end up with another idea. I either evolve and solidify the thought, idea, or opinion, or changed my mind about it!

Either way, writing allows me to think more thoroughly about something.

I write what I want to know.

How to make it easier

Get better at thinking clearly and discover your voice / writing style.


  1. First, know that both are muscles to develop. And there is no shortcut but to show up and do the work.
  2. Second, get to know and master your own style of thinking. More specifically:
    1. Identify the different pattern of activities in your thought process.
    2. Find ways to remove as much points of friction as possible in each activity.
    3. Experiment to set up your own system to support these.

I know these are all quite vague. I’ll explain what I mean under “Four sources of anxiety” below.

Writing is hard because it’s mostly mental game. We have many mental patterns, habits, loops, conflicts, and tensions.

I’ll start by saying that this is based on my personal observation over my own thought process and patterns.

I identified there are four things clogging up my mental RAM related to knowledge work.

If we think about these verbs:

  • being aware
  • knowing
  • understanding
  • internalising
  • embodying

And then think about these nouns…

  • data (neutral, could be noise could be signals depending on our filter)
  • information (structured, filtered data)
  • knowledge (practiced information ?)
  • wisdom / internalised lesson (personal experience and context applied to knowledge)
  • mastery (?? explicit and tacit knowledge?)

I define knowledge work here as the process where I apply different depths and frequencies to the nouns to make myself or others experience the verbs.

perceptual learning (-> machine learning?), explicit vs tacit knowledge, Epistêmê vs technê, inner game of tennis, gibsons, commoncog, legible vs illegible

https://twitter.com/nbashaw/status/1136855175375740928 What’s your favorite way to learn? (Assuming time, money, and access were no constraint)

32% Books/articles

14% Podcasts/audiobooks

16% Videos

38% Conversation w/ expert

18 votes: Doing

that could be my thing actually. knowledge management and transmission in remote settings.

https://twitter.com/naval/status/1132917875625193474 Shorter feedback loops means more iterations, and it’s the number of iterations, not the number of hours, that drives learning.

Tinkering, try it out, establish the feedback look, worrydream (brett victor)

The four clogs are:

  1. Level 1: uncaptured and untracked thoughts / ideas (fear of dropping the ball / letting something slip through the cracks)
  2. Level 2: unstructured data (got no place to stick them / file them away)
  3. Level 3: incoherent information (difficult to tell the signal from the noise).
  4. Level 4: no entrypoint (only got a “stash” of similar things without clear point / argument / conclusion / logical narrative)
  5. Level 5: imperfection. endlessly sharpening and editing

  6. Uncaptured, unrecorded, or untracked thoughts or ideas, The fear of dropping the ball, letting something slip through the cracks, or not being able to trace something back to its original seed and thread. At the moment I don’t think I have issue with unmonitored info (FOMO). I just treat every thought I have a bit too seriously. Overanalytical.

  7. Unstructured. Having no place to put it where it makes sense. It’s that messy cupboard you throw random things in and hope never have to actually deal with sorting out.
  8. incoherent. just a bunch of similar things. no idea what’s the conclusion, where to start pulling, and what angle to use
  9. imperfect. incomplete, things to add, to remove, to rephrase.
  • Decide what you want to say. That’s your entry point. Start there and follow the trail.
  • Say only one thing
  • Don’t forget what you want to say

Do you know what you want to write about?

I wouldn’t even say you need to know what you want to say before you start writing. But you do need to know what you want to find out. Having some sort of idea what you want to say might help, but don’t get too attached to it. Be okay with changing your mind during. I think Venkat’s expression sort of applies here: Be the medium (for the idea), not the agent.

I am not that good in narrative writing. I think very linearly. In logical steps, lists, bullet points.

Before identifying and calling these different layers out, I have been unconsciously working on , What helps

I haven’t arrived at a final setup that I completely happy with — still experimenting and trying tools out.

I like to let things simmer at the back of my mind.

My current working tools and strategies in dealing with each level:

  1. Dirty capture

When I get an idea, an interesting thought, an open thread, I immediately create a note. I write them down on paper or on the phone.

Capture everything.

I now use simplenote which syncs to nvAlt on the laptop. I like the Markdown support. Used to use Adler (android only?). It has widgets, and supports multimedia.

Knowing I have offloaded these somewhere allows me to keep my head empty and reduce that mental burden.

  1. Structuring

I have around 55 notes on Evernote Notebook called Topics. One note for each topic that I am interested in or have looked into. The content of these notes don’t follow any specific structure yet. I am mostly just dumping things in, sometimes duplicating.

This is what it looks like currently:

The big chunk of the work is actually in determining what these Topics are. This is probably my fourth or fifth iteration of partitioning and formation. I started with Google Spreadsheet, Evernote, Trello, then Google Docs, then back to Evernote. Everytime I migrate, the delineation becomes clearer. I would be “forced” to revisit and restructure the whole thing.

  1. This is the part I procrastinated the most on. To sit down and process the stash.

If I leave it be, 80% of my time and energy would be spent for stage 1 activity and 10% in stage 2.

Only 10% to actual write? Yes. I’ll only write when I feel like it, when inspiration strikes.

It’s just fun, nice, and easy to be researching, consuming, collecting all the time.

I feel smarter, more resourceful, and more prepared.

All the illusion.

The good thing is I would grow frustrated, haunted by the growing volume of data collected, the many unpublished drafts, and the mental constipation.

So many information and ideas. Which one to write about? Where to start? Where to go? How to end?

Often I would go into a topic, having some sort of idea the point I was trying to make, what I want to share, start typing (congrats if I got this far), and then I start rambling.

Throwing slightly related things in, forcing phrases I thought would make me sound super smart, and elaborating on tangents. Topics overlap. Points interrelate. Virtue signalling, mental flexing, intellectual masturbation. Everything snowballs.

Then the big blob of unwieldy text becomes overwhelming. I would need to muster an even higher activation energy to try and tame it.

At this point I know the best way forward is to throw everything out and start over.

To detach from all the excess material and remind myself:

  1. What did I want to say?
  2. Have I made the point?
  3. What is still missing?
  4. I can write about the other points in other posts. There is space and there is time. No need to write a mega post….
  5. I am mostly overthinking this. People get what I’m trying to say. It’s okay to ramble a bit. Lower yo bar a bit…

Actually what helps the most is managing my own expectations.

Initially I thought it’s me being n00b and lacking skills. But apparently this seems to be normal even for seasoned writers. I think.

So I have come to accept that I will need to create lots of drafts, go through editing and rewriting. It’s all normal. Don’t get discouraged.

If I think about it, it makes sense. It’s like making clay. You add water, add clay, mold it, let some fall off, keep pedalling the spinner, shaping it, and dip both your hands all into the sticky mess.

Thinking and writing is like that, I suppose. You start somewhere, start typing, expanding it, shaping it, throwing in some words, removing a bunch of them. It takes effort. It’s normal.

I hope the breakdown helps you develop some sort of workflow and tools to handle each stage. So so many tools out there. Just try them out.

  • Gingkoapp

Couple of questions to guide the editing process

  • What am I trying to say, find out, or decide here?
  • Does this sentence / paragraph / help me make the point?

A couple of supporting roles I notice making appearances in my drafts:

  • stuff that’s there to sound smart. signalling.
  • interesting but unrelated point for another time and context, don’t unpack here

Rule of thumbs

Words to avoid

  • adjacent, tangential, orthogonal

Sources of conflicts

  • Over qualifying, too much intro, too much elaboration. But not wanting to have something too dry.

I guess these are all normal in the process developing your voice / writing style.

it would often go from trying to be poetic and using lebay languages (aha, cliches), trus nambahin poin2 smart lainnya, trus

Writing hacks

When you’re stuck

Apply constraints

On length: Create a couple of versions. A 140 characters version, a 500 word version, a 2k word version. Tease out the idea. Outline. Get to know it in and out.

On time: As if my manager is waiting for the report. Or your colleague is waiting for the response on Slack. There’s a deadline.


Starting from scratch helps you step away from the problem (or your growingly muddy draft) and think about it from a new angle, and often end up with fresh articulation.

If you’re multilingual: rewrite it in another language.

What helps: version control. Have a way to track all changes. Be it Google Docs, git, svn, simplenote, Notion, etc.

There is strange freedom in knowing I am not really throwing away any sentence. I merely “hide it”.

It also helps to know that there is no waste really. All the excess words that didn’t make it into the cut all serve a purpose. They helped me refine the thoughts.

It also helps to cut the segment and paste it into a different note, as a mind dump. Problem solved.

I think

I don’t know if this is unique to people who have English as their second language, but I find myself attached to almost every articulation I produce. They all seem so precious. I resist throwing away any, for fear of never going to discover them again. Scarcity.

Final thoughts

There’s great power in calling out and naming things.

Making the implicit, explicit.

This crux of information distribution. I Once we get ideas out of our head I am fascinated by speech and writing.

Thinking is largely asking and answering questions. To get more answers, deliberately ask more questions.

Most people are not thinking. We just live. follow known patterns,

awalnya cuma mau share the “sources of anxiety”, tapi jadi melebar ke Nerdy Blogging, how to write, why writing is hard, clear thinking, articulation, researching, workflow, tools, haha.

oh… break it into the several series?

duh, ntar dulu deh. publish this one first

there’s something in the act of writing it down, revisiting it, rearranging it, iterating on it, that help us move closer to where i want to go and get clearer

Apparently this is called cognitive science? Well it’s all intertwined… psychology, cog sci, meta cog, linguistics, biology, sociology, anthropology…


Your first thoughts are not your best thought.

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