Increasing The Size Of Your Paper

Learning to avidly journal was definitely one of the biggest upgrades to my life. I was always willing to bring pen to paper when facing a particularly tough problem, but the habit of consistently following my thoughts beyond my personal memory was not something I really did until my mid twenties. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I started experimenting with the memory limitations of the paper itself.

Part of this was introspective curiosity. Part of this was out of necessity.

In my early twenties I was dealing with some pretty nasty chronic pain (diagnosed as fibromyalgia, which I eventually figured out). For those of you who haven’t experienced chronic pain either directly or indirectly it may be difficult to understand what kind of a catastrophic clusterfuck it is. Outside of the fact that it’s a lot of suffering, it’s just a really hard problem. There’re feedback loops left and right. The medical system is about 20% helpful 20% harmful and 60% useless. Anything that was causing you stress before is now tripled, and our society basically hands up a crap basket of default beliefs for us to start with as far as figuring it out is concerned. Of course half the problem is that you’re never looking at any problem you’re dealing with strictly from the outside. You’re inside the storm trying to figure out atmospheric science while steering the boat.

When trying to figure out really hard problems, you’re going to go down many wrong, or at least partial paths, before you come to something satisfactory. Often times from the perspective you started with there is no correct path. It’s only by noticing the patterns between the many wrong paths you went down do you start to come to principles which are finally workable.

Sometimes this is because you need to enter a new domain and you don’t even know the language to begin intelligently attacking the problem with. Sometimes it’s because you started with fundamentally flawed beliefs that you based everything off of. Sometimes it’s because you need to make complex series of tradeoffs to rebalance the system, which means even if you get some wins initially you’re off chasing fires caused by whatever tradeoffs you made. Finally for you adult psychological development folks it’s because you actually need to grow beyond your current ways of understanding of the world, not just from an information standpoint but from a mental complexity standpoint.

In all of these cases what you actually need to do is see the forest for the trees. You don’t need a faster car, you need to understand how traffic works. You need to jump aboard the meta rocket ship and sail into the sweet sweet stars of unknowing. Forgetting what you thought was important to see an entirely different problem.

Unfortunately, you often don’t know when a meta-solution is needed, and even if you do know there’s only one way to find it. You need whatever things you are looking at en masse so that you can stating noticing the relationships between them.

Journaling in generally is pretty damn good for this. Even if you never re-read your thoughts, the simple act of having to explicate them can work wonders for increasing the clarity and depth of your understanding.

But journals can often become jumbled messes. Some pages are pure scratch, others are more fleshed out, and there are likely multiple different domains that are beneficial to help your brain out with.

I tried to solve this by using multi-subject notebooks. I had a section for scratch, a section for physical/health stuff, and a section for heady/phenomenology stuff. This certainly was a big improvement, but I would often find myself repeating a thought I had the month before and it was hard to see connections between things I wrote on different pages. When confronting unknown domains you’re frequently playing with completely different lenses or systems of putting things together until it’s clear which will be the most useful.

1. The Notebook

As an experiment, I wanted to see how beneficial it would be to work with a bigger landscape. I did two things. I got a much bigger journal and made a huge whiteboard.

Drawing pads like these are available at most art supply stores, but you can also find them on Amazon.

There are some definite pros and cons to this kind of notebook. The cons can be summed up pretty simply with “You can’t fit a journal this size in a backpack”. I enjoy working with friends and at coffee shops, so it’s a burden in that department. But it does have some big upsides.

The very obvious upside is that it makes it much easier to see the relationships between things.

The form factor itself is a big advantage because it changes how you interact with it. Now each domain gets divided into sections of 18″x24″ (or 18″x48″ if you open it and keep the left and right hand pages on the same subject) rather than 50 pages of smaller size in a multi-subject notebook. This is a big advantage because it forces you to draw reasonable boundaries while being big enough to draw connections that would otherwise be difficult to see.

A page I’m noodling on for a movement class I’m teaching in San Francisco.

With a standard notebook I’d end up with many half pages of scribble thoughts. I’d just start new pages instead of editing existing ones because new pages were cheap and there was always the possibility of coming back to those old scraps latter. Now those scribbles float on a massive sea of paper. By the time I need the space that those thoughts are occupying either they can be re-written and successfully incorporated into the larger picture or it’s time for those thoughts to die.

Instead of a slow rolling pile of pages, you get a beautiful thought painting that slowly grows, evolves. and matures over time. Your past learnings are always in front of you which makes it much easier to build an “architecture” of thought. This can really help reduce mental spaghetti code. As with any architecture… you can also get stuck it in, so it’s important to keep around a little bit of a trouble maker within your personality to start fires every once in a while.

2. The Whiteboard

Honestly, this has been one of the best experiments I’ve ever run. The whiteboard is 6’x7′ and covers the better half of a wall. Having a massive whiteboard in your room is fucking awesome. I can’t recommend one enough.

So much whiteboard…

When I first looked at getting a big whiteboard I was a little bit floored by how expensive they were. Cheap whiteboards this size are easily $200-$300, and they don’t usually come in the exact dimensions you want. I tried using the roll on white board paper, which did work well for a few months but kept producing air bubbles underneath. Reviews of whiteboard paint were pretty bad across the board, so I ended up going with melamine board which costs $20 for a 4’x8′ panel and erases cleanly if you use a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.

Having a big whiteboard permanently attached to the wall has seriously been a bit life changing. There are just so many benefits of having your thoughts collect in front of you over time. You don’t really need to do anything. You don’t need to be in journaling mode for it to work its magic. Its just sitting there, offering a place to write and reminding you of what you’ve been thinking about.

What I found was that you build longer chains of thought, you have an immediate outlet for working out whatever is frustrating you whether it be intellectual or emotional, and you can plan out long spans of time to get a better sense of what is reasonable and figure out what your actual priorities are. If understanding context is important, this is like buying a context Ferrari for your life.

10/10 Would do again.

3. What Else?

This idea of specifically trying to see the forest for the trees is definitely one I plan to keep around and want to play more with. Some of the things that seem to be in this category include: recording yourself, meditation, psychedelics, and writing autobiographically. I’ve played with some of these more than others but haven’t found a form factor for any of them that I’m really satisfied with.

If I have one goal this year it’s to climb to the top of my life’s metaphorical mountain and sit there until the vista is burned into my soul.

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