Erick Matsen   Field Notes



For knowledge workers, including academics, our job is to think. However, it’s easy for distractions and busy work to get in the way. Here, I’ll introduce a method I use to make sure that I’m thinking every day about the most important challenges preventing our forward progress.

The challenge

Although thinking about science is in principle my job, in practice there are a lot of other parts that demand attention. Meetings and email carry an immediacy that place hard demands on my time. This can make it difficult to find time to think.

Furthermore, the time when interesting questions arise is not necessarily the time when it’s best to actually think about them. For example, I might be meeting with a student or collaborator, who raises a question that seems too big to address on the spot. Or I might have a random idea at an awkward time, and not be able to have time to consider it.

The system

The solution is to have a pipeline of ideas that make sure that they don’t get lost.

Every question/idea/problem gets written on a single sheet of paper at the top. Then, every day at your best thinking time, pull the sheets out and look at each one for a little bit. Try to doodle something, or engage with the question in some way. Once you’re done, just move on to the next sheet.

I have found that thinking frequently is much more important than thinking harder. It feels like an idea is either appears or doesn’t appear on any given day, so thinking longer doesn’t really help, but if I think about something every day it increases the chance that an idea will appear.

In principle one could do this digitally, but I don’t think it would work as well. Computers are good for lots of things, but open-ended distraction-free brainstorming doesn’t seem like one of them.

The sensory aspects of this process also give me pleasure and thus make it more likely for me to engage with my whole brain. I love having a sharp #2 pencil in my hand– the smell of the pencil and the sound it makes are all part of the ritual. For longer math derivations I switch over to a drafting pencil.

Everyone has their own preferences about paper and writing instruments, and listen to yours.

More importantly, find your best thinking time when you can focus and relax. Then block your calendar, take some breaths, and enjoy.


I am not a profound thinker. This method won’t turn you into a profound thinker. However, this method makes me a better, and more importantly, a frequent thinker.

Hopefully this post helps explain our new group logo.

The pencil represents thinking/math, and the robotic chicken represents computers: they are very fast but not all that smart.