Stop Thinking in the Raw, Shape Your Thoughts

No matter how much energy or passion behind your thoughts, if you do not focus them, then they will have the about same impact as a light drizzle. But learn how to shape your thoughts, and you can cut through rocks with laser precision and rally others like a raging river.

Just listen to a great speaker to see this idea in action. Good speakers have simple messages, which are often repeated and reinforced. This message is more important than anything else that could be said or put on a slide. But these simple messages do not come from a vacuum. Great speakers, like Tim Menzies, often spend weeks living an idea and trying it out before unleashing the idea to a crowd:

When we get lots of data, one of the first things we do is throw most of it away. — Tim Menzies

Crafting such a simple message involves engaging in a deep task, where you devote significant time conceptualizing problems and solutions, often for days or weeks. For others, they spend significant time "socializing an idea", where they continually hone and tune their message based on feedback from speaking with people. The point is that great messages and beautiful concepts only come from hard and deliberate work in crafting them.

Daily Abstraction

Not every thought needs to be shaped and crafted into an artisan relic. In research it is worth applying the idea of shaping your thoughts as staple task in your weekly routine.

Here are some simple reasons and situations you can apply this idea in a daily fashion.

  • Direct a meeting. If you want to win others to your way of thinking or drive a conversation in a certain way, establish the core concepts you want to talk about beforehand. You must be able to explain them and win others in 30 seconds and then take control.

    I have a hypothesis—developers are mislead by initial placement of error notifications—let's talk about it.

  • Help you write. Good papers have good stories. A good story has a well-stated problem, a central and piercing question, and a clear argument that drives the text. None of these things get created without significant effort in defining and thinking about each one, carefully and deliberately.

  • Help you learn. You have absorbed 20 research papers in a field of your study. But the details will fade like sand slipping through your fingers. What was the central message of a paper? What were the key take-aways? How do they relate together? Can you group those papers into 2-4 piles? Can you compare and contrast ideas?

    Code replays provide an excellent mechanism for recollecting an coding experience as a “flash-bulb experience”. However, for a programming task that can span several days, a code replay can overwhelm a programmer with an excessively long and unstructured sequence of code changes.

  • Help you think. Complex and deep work requires juggling many thoughts. If you do not spend time to abstract and shape those thoughts, you will be forced to reason and think in the raw. If you abstract your thoughts, it makes it easier to resume work and get more leverage in your thinking. It is an investment worth making.

  • Help you communicate and teach. As mentioned above, great talks have simple messages. When teaching, you are tasked with framing and filling minds. Given equal time in either explaining a complicated mechanism in detail or creating concepts that explain the mechanism simply, you are more often than not better off using your time on developing concepts and not explaining details (poorly).

  • Reflect on experiences. Finally, it is important to extract key lessons from work and life experiences. Translate feelings and problems into actions and principles.

    After being unable to reproduce results, all my new projects will have a research pipeline that can regenerate figures and tables used in reports.


  • This is a non-trivial endeavor. Your head will hurt with the pain of reconciling unfocused thoughts. But this means you may be on the right track. It never gets easier, but you will produce slightly better ideas over time.

  • It takes a lot of time. Why think when you could write code or words? Spending a whole day and still having muddy thoughts can be frustrating. And on successful days, spending a whole day to produce a just handful of phrases can seem silly. But spending years on a poor research idea or coding project can just be as frustrating— especially, when a problem or research question never clearly manifests and remains as murky as ever.

  • Not all your thoughts will fit neatly into concepts. You must learn to work with an imperfect set of concepts, refining and honing over time. It may all collapse. Be prepared to discard and rebuild.


Stop thinking-in-the-raw. Invest time in finding the concepts central to your work. Integrate this activity frequently and often. Speak and write in well-thought-out concepts.