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The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #44, about how you can improve thinking. The post first ran on Feb. 2/18.
Welcome to The Write Question, I’m Daphne Gray-Grant. Today we’re talking about how to improve thinking…
Today I’m answering a question from Thohidul Karim a PhD student at Donghua University in Shanghai. Here’s what he’s asked, via email.
I currently have a problem with writing my thesis as well as articles for journal publications. Whenever I try to write something, I find myself empty of thoughts even though I read lots of references. What do you suggest I do?
Thanks for the question, Thohidul. I suspect that many PhD students share the same problem and I have two suggestions for you.
First, start mindmapping. I talk about this strategy all the time so I won’t go into great depth, here. Instead, look at the links below which include both blog posts and videos. Mindmapping is super easy to learn. It’s also the best way to give yourself access to the creative part of your brain. Start mindmapping right away and pay particular attention to my suggestion to use a QUESTION in the centre of the mindmap.
My second idea might surprise you but I’m going to suggest you make a point of getting away from your desk more often. So many academics seem to believe that they can’t think unless they’re sitting at their desk or computer with ready access to all their notes. Instead, the opposite is true: It’s hard to think when you’re stuck at your desk.
Before you try to write and, in fact, before you try to mindmap, go for a walk and think about what the research has told you. You might feel uncomfortable, like you want to take notes, but if that really worries you, take your cell phone along and dictate anything you’re worried that you might forget.
When your muscles are moving, your brain is getting lots of oxygen. Even though they weigh only three pounds and are about the size of a cantaloupe, they require some 20% of the body’s oxygen. Our brains are oxygen-hogs. Sitting at your desk does NOT get nearly oxygen to your brain, and that makes thinking way harder.
I believe so strongly in the value of movement that I work at a treadmill desk, so I’m actually able to walk while I write. In fact, I was walking while I wrote this script. (Yes, I can walk and type at the same time.) But before I had the treadmill technology, I always made sure I went outside for a walk before writing. There is also value in being outside. The sights, sounds and smells of nature are famous for bolstering creativity.
Even living somewhere like Shanghai, which is the home to 23 million people, you still have plenty of opportunities for walking. I was curious, so I did some research on green space there. In 2015, Shanghai’s government converted almost 25 square miles of the city into forest and green space.
No matter the city, there will still be a chance to find somewhere to walk. If you are determined enough and recognize the value of walking, you should be able to figure out a way to do it.
Finally, while we’re talking about walking, let me wrap up with an insightful comment from Henry David Thoreau: “The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
Thanks for your question, Thohidul. I’m certain your own thoughts will start to flow once you try mindmapping — and walking.