Write Only: Setup

In earlier post I’ve written about switching to write-only mode inspired by Joe Nelson. This time I’ll provide a bit more details on why and how.


As I’ve already mentioned, for me “write-only” mode is not about avoiding ephemeral things (is there anything “real”?) or being disconnected - it’s all about being proactive instead of reactive, this is the only way to concentrate on producing things.

It definitely requires a special environment and I’d say that the most important things are organizing space and time.

By time I literally mean time - it’s impossible to create something you’re proud of without iterating, prototyping, throwing bad attempts, taking time to recover and continue looping.

By organizing space I mean a bit more complex concept. The act of creation is always a path from entropy to a structure, from chaotic bits to organized bits. As your knowledge is what allows you to create, it’s kind of obvious that you should concentrate on converting information to knowledge.

What’s the difference between the two? Connections! It’s all about connections - they form the structure, they form the way you think, what you can think and what you can’t think of.

The thing with connections is that you can see them much easier in “big forms” - no matter what we’re talking about - be it music, be it an idea, be it a life story or anything else.

Tell me how you spent yesterday - I’ll know a couple of facts about you. Tell me about your whole life - I’ll find patterns, I’ll make my conclusions about people in general and your character in particular.

Imho, the most wrong thing about social media and news is that being “small forms”, they just overload you with disconnected bits of information. You can’t use it, but it still occupies (or rather pollutes) your mental space. The space you could use for creating.

That brings an interesting hypothesis: the form of information you consume is much more important than how old and “time-proven” it is (I feel it’s “weird” English, let me know if you have an idea how to reformulate it). You know, it’s always a big surprise what exactly is the last drop for an “Eureka!” moment, but it always is about filling a “last connection” in already highly organized “model”.

One of the reasons why “big forms” are usually much useful is that they require a stronger structure. It means author has to work much harder in both discovering connections and in explaining them to the “reader”.

The simplest lesson I can take from this observation is that “more you write - better you understand”.

This works for other communication channels too - I bet every developer knows how effective rubber duck debugging is. What makes writing so special is that there are no time limits and that helps a lot.

Practical setup

Considering all above, I’ve formulated the following thesises:

  • big forms should have preference over small forms (both for consumption and for production)
  • big forms require huge time chunks
  • communication shouldn’t be blindly cut - it’s all about sharing experience, it should be reshaped if required
  • time spent writing down thoughts should be increased
  • thoughts should be shared publicly and being non-native English speaker is not an excuse
  • there should be no isolation from new information
  • new information should be dosed more than “time-proven”
  • it’s preferable to have new pieces close to the current expertise - it’s much easier to evaluate them and turn into something useful today

After a bit of tinkering, here is a part of my current setup:

  • turned off notification sounds/vibration on the phone, they split time into smaller chunks and destroy concentration on big forms
  • never take phone to the bed - smartphone creates a temptation to start another round of Hacker News/Reddit/Twitter. It allows to sleep earlier and wake up disconnected
  • no news until midday
  • news and browsing are actually about quick skimming to understand if it deserves to be marked
  • marked pieces are queued (in my case to Instapaper)
  • I have a time limit to spend on queue => it’s another filter to pick important things, letting noise to be drown
  • no automatic mail retrieval - email is handled in batches every couple of hours
  • earlier I gathered email from different accounts into one. I’m reverting it back to have a separate accounts for different tasks. This + manual mail retrieval allows to avoid temptation on answering personal email during work time and vice versa - I literally can see only emails of “current working context”
  • I’m also experimenting with GTD-approach to email like in Google Inbox and similar products
  • no more short inline comments
  • if I want to suggest something - I have to write a spec, instead of throwing out raw idea
  • I have to ressurect my blog, it was actually never active but only because I’ve always thought there was nothing I could share.

The only missing solution so far is IM, to be precise Slack-based work communication. In most cases my response time raised significantly (up to 25 minutes for a reply), but so far that works fine.

Preliminary results

I’m practicing this setup a bit less than 2 weeks and so far I have the following observations:

  • it’s really hard to get off the news hook - sometimes it feels like I’m blinded
  • on the bright side I’m much more connected to everything I work on
  • I’m more interested in long-term results
  • there are no temptations in trying one more new shiny thing - I don’t know about them :-)