Externalization is the act of expressing your thoughts through written words or verbal communication. I want to explain to everyone just how useful externalization truly is. This is something that can change your life. It’s all about your thoughts, so we’ll start there...
So what is a thought? Thoughts are rich in diversity and range from the simple and mundane to the sophisticated and abstract. Thoughts are the mechanism by which our brains experience and analyze the world around us. I consider them as the hallmark of human existence and the resource that fuels all human activities and behavior whether good or bad. They are so powerful that we can even think about our thinking! It’s no surprise that thinking, or cognition, is a huge field of study including cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience. But for now, I want to focus on just two particular attributes of thinking:
The relationships between thoughts, emotions and actions
Memory and consolidation of thoughts
Thoughts, Emotions and Actions
Try to recall the last emotion that you experienced. Now try to recall what you were thinking about at the time. If you were happy you may have been thinking about how life is going just the way you want it to. Or perhaps you weren't thinking about much at all and you were just enjoying the moment. If you were sad, you were likely thinking about something that made you uncomfortable about life that troubled you. Emotions are your minds primitive way of using basic sensory information to influence your actions. But emotions are informed (or misinformed) by awareness. And awareness is influenced by the thinking mind. This means that our thoughts, if given enough attention, can be the key to influencing our actions and even reactions. Control your thoughts and you control your future. Viktor E. Frankl once said:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
That space is governed entirely by thinking...
Now try to recall a time from your childhood that you can picture most vividly. Now tell me, are you recalling the details as they were? Or are you recalling the details as you last remembered them? Or are you recalling the details as to how you remembered last remembering them? What about a distortion of them all? Memory, though studied widely, is still not well understood by scientists, and yet, memory influences our day-to-day actions and choices in life nevertheless. Memory is an imperfect utility that can morph, sometimes quite drastically, over time. To make matters worse, we forget things all the time as our brain is always working to consolidate or prune information in an effort to reduce energy consumption (this is also why habits are formed). Yet when we need to make a decision, our first instinct is to go back to our memory to find patterns that can help us decide what to do. Unfortunately we don’t directly control what our brain decides to remember and forget or even whether our memory is accurate. Do you really want to make important decisions based on information like that?
Externalization is a useful tool that anyone can use to help them consciously take charge of their thoughts and memories. Why rely on your brain to do functions that computers (or even pen and paper) can do better? Writing down thoughts gives us a direct reference to go back to when we want to recall our past experiences, ideas and realizations. But that’s just the start of what externalization can do. Once any of our thoughts exist outside of the mind, we are now able to go back to them to stimulate more thoughts. This is the best way I know to combat cyclic thinking. Thinking patterns tend to progress until the point at which they enter a loop, at which time cyclic (and usually stressful) thinking patterns begin. This is why you commonly hear people use expressions such as “over-thinking” or “spinning your wheels”. I don’t believe that thinking too much is the real problem; it’s cyclic thinking that is the true culprit. When you write your thoughts down, it empowers you to focus on building upon previous thoughts rather than thinking in circles.
Decluttering the Mind
There are even more benefits to externalization, especially in the realm of digital externalization. When you have your thoughts captured in digital form it is quite easy to go back to your thoughts and reorganize them. It is also becoming easier and easier to sort through and find content that might now be relevant despite being old (Recency ≠ Relevancy). Having organized thoughts helps you to think in an organized manner. And organized thinking is the secret to bringing purpose to your thoughts. Externalization helps you deliberately build your mind. It also helps you deconstruct your thoughts (both present and past) for self-analysis which can aid in battling lack of motivation, controlling mood swings and even eliminating depression. Seeing your past perspectives in the context of your present knowledge allows you to re-evaluate your feelings and stay grounded to your greater intentions in life.
Tools of Externalization
As you know by now, all that it takes to externalize is a pen and paper or other device to record your thinking. But I highly recommend digital text-based externalization for the advantages it brings. You might be thinking “sure it would be nice to have all my thoughts externalized but that’s going to be a heck of a lot of work to type them all up” and that may be true. But you don’t have to be a lifelogger to start reaping the benefits of externalization; just start by taking note of whatever you think may be important and relevant to your future. If you use a digital note taking system, you can go back to previous thoughts and add more details at a later time. With more advanced systems, such as PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) tools, you can easily externalize your thoughts in the context of related information to immediately begin developing your thoughts. Your externalized thinking becomes a personal library for you to review whenever you need to make an important decision or are trying to solve problems you’re facing in life. I’ve even used externalization to figure out what I stand by and developing a personal mission statement that acts as a guide for all my endeavours in life. I now externalize so intensively that I’ve developed a system which I feel best empowers externalization.
Time to Externalize!
I encourage anyone interested in improving themselves to start externalizing now. Being an experienced externalizer, I now have logs of:
Details of important events
Random ideas about topics
Dreams and memories
Thoughts related to topics I’m learning about
And any other miscellaneous information and thoughts
I firmly believe that, despite being able to categorize your thoughts, there should not be a strict segmentation between them. Thoughts thrive most effectively in the context of more information and thoughts. There are many techniques and tools to do this in the realm of PKM and you can learn more about them here If you haven’t already done so, you should subscribe with Project AMPLE to stay in touch and get the chance to try Laddice Beta, exclusively released to early subscribers. Laddice is the ultimate PKM and externalization system and designed to make information and thoughts useful for every user.
A Final Note
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future” Steve Jobs
If those “dots ” are thoughts, externalization will pay you back for your efforts with dividends. Start externalizing and empower your capacity to make each day, each moment and each thought meaningful.
- Alex Zichettello