The Importance of Capturing Fringe-Thoughts

Capturing fringe-thoughts on a daily basis has revolutionized the way I develop my theories about the world.

Random ideas, quotes, people I need to talk to, a funny conversation overheard at the table next to me at my favorite cafe down the street, a book recommendation from a review in the paper, a gift idea for Christmas, a potential blog post, a short-term task, a long-term project.

Each day dozens of fringe-thoughts enter our brain. They may or may not be relevant to our main work. They materialize in various stages of development.

I used to see fringe-thoughts as a distraction. Now I know they’re essential to shaping my outlook on the world, and I try to capture, record, review, refine, and publish (via this blog) as many of them as I can. In addition to making you a better conversationalist, organizing your fringe-thoughts is on the way to a more intellectually coherent worldview.

The best way to capture fringe-thoughts is with your PDA. I use the "memo" feature of my BlackBerry. In meetings and in meals I use an old-fashioned notebook, since BlackBerry use is super rude. On my bed side table I keep a big notepad. On the web I use On my computer I keep "stickies" — this is the master list.

The inspiration for this post came from Aaron Swartz’s wonderful excerpt from The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills, with "blog" in place of "file":

    As a social scientist, you have to … capture what you experience and sort it out; only in this way can you hope to use it to guide and test your reflection, and in the process shape yourself as an intellectual craftsman. But how can you do this? One answer is: you must set up a blog…

    In such a blog … there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this blog, you … will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person. here you will not be afraid to use your experience and relate it directly to various work in progress. By serving as a check on repetitious work, your blog also enables you to conserve your energy. It also encourages you to capture ‘fringe-thoughts’: various ideas which may be byproducts of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard in the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience.

    …The blog also helps you build up the habit of writing. … In developing the blog, you can experiment as a writer and this, as they say, develop your powers of expression.

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