In my last post about stuckness, I said that talking to other people is a good way for me to get unstuck. But obviously, that’s not always possible. Most of the time, with my Ph.D work, I’m working by myself. So how do I get unstuck when I can’t bounce ideas off anyone?

I do it by writing.

I write my thought process down in real time. I have many pages of notes that look like this:

[pasted plot] It really looks like a sigmoidal function of voltage. So how do I model this?

Need to use Boltzmann equation

[some math follows]

Wait, that can’t be right, it can’t activate at that voltage.

[more math, correcting the error]

OK, that’s right. But what about […and so on]

Keeping this kind of stream-of-consciousness journal works a lot like bouncing ideas off someone else.

It helps me stay on track. My entire train of thought is committed to paper. I can see what I’ve already considered and why I discarded it. I can also see exactly where my questions are, and what errors I already caught.

It also helps me unstick myself by forcing me to put into words (sentences, paragraphs) exactly what I don’t understand. Once I’ve done that, it’s much easier to identify the pieces of information I need, and figure out where I can go to get them.

And just the act of writing longhand seems to help me get in and stay in a state of flow. When I did a journaling workshop with Carol Henderson, this phenomenon of longhand flow came up. It works when you’re journaling for yourself, or doing creative writing. But it works just as well when you’re doing science.

So I keep legal pads and pens nearby. My absolute favorite legal pad is this Ampad one: college ruled, three-hole punched, with a nice thick cardboard backing so you can write anywhere. And my current favorite pens are these Paper Mate ballpoint pens. Yes, I like them in purple. (No, Ampad and Paper Mate aren’t paying me anything or giving me anything. I just happen to like those particular products.)

I picked up both of these office supply habits from one of the engineers who taught me the most when I started graduate school, Ned Rouze. Ned’s notes are always tidy and orderly and clean; mine aren’t. But he taught me the necessity of always keeping a legal pad and pen within grabbing distance.

So when I’m stuck, I can either bounce ideas off someone else — or I can bounce them off a yellow legal pad with a purple pen. Either way, it helps me get untangled and back into the flow.