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Linear thinking is a myth. Yet, somehow, the way we teach people to think at school is linear. First, formulate a question. Then, the hypothesis. Third, design a protocol to test your hypothesis. Evaluate the results. Of course, it can be argued the process is circular rather than linear—a learning loop of sort where you formulate a new hypothesis based on the results of the latest experiment—but the process traditionally taught to students still involves thinking in a specific order. But how can I formulate a question if I haven't had the opportunity to think about the topic already? And how do I decide which question is the best to choose if I don't have some pre-existing knowledge?
Thinking is not only non-linear, it's messy. It involves a lot of back and forth, dead ends, branching, walking back, merging ideas, changing ideas, contradicting ideas. When I picture what my thoughts look like—the actual process of navigating different ideas in my head—I don't see a nice straight road with check points, I see a massive web of tangled threads.
Then why is it that most tools and thinking strategies assume a nice chronological order for my thought processes? The ideal tool for thought would embrace the messiness of our minds, and organically help insights emerge from chaos instead of forcing an artificial order. I think this is why I Iike the concept of the Zettelkasten method so much. The dead ends, the forking and merging of ideas, are all defining features instead of bugs to be squashed. In Zettelkasten, there are no orphan thoughts. Each new idea is added to the existing web, linking back to previous ideas and ready to be linked to. It's much more similar to the way our memory actually works. (linking new knowledge to existing knowledge makes it easy to remember)
Something I'm struggling with when it comes to threaded thinking is the volume of ideas. A mistake I have made in my previous note-taking system is to add everything to my thinking box, from interesting ideas to raw snippets taken from articles and books. It's a mess, but not a productive one. Productive threaded thinking needs to be selective: only the best (most interesting) ideas and questions should be saved. Fleeting notes should be discarded as soon as they've been turned into a permanent one. Again, no thought should be left orphan.