Although the word “boarding” in reference to a large writing project may make you think “waterboarding…” this is probably more productive.


A Cool Strategy for Organizing Complex Ideas
Ben Dean, Ph.D.

Many graduate students complain that the dissertation is so huge that it becomes impossible to organize. How can all of these bits and pieces of accumulated writings be organized to tell a coherent story?

I’m going to teach you a great method for organizing complex ideas that requires minimal attention and memory. It’s even possible to use this idea while watching TV.

The technique is almost embarrassingly simple. If you can pump out an outline, you won’t need this technique. But if you’re struggling to get started and you mind has turned to mush, this technique can give you a needed jumpstart.

This method, called storyboarding, was developed at Disney Studios in the 1930’s. It is now used by every major advertising firm, and a variation of it works well for individual writers struggling with complex ideas.

To get started, you’ll need some basic props: two sizes  and two colors of 3M Post-it Notes  (or their equivalent) and some 22′ x 28′ poster board. Ideally, use some 2′ x 2′ Post-it notes and some a size smaller than the 2′ x 2′.

The beauty of this technique is that you can mechanically grind through it. It is time-intensive, but it is an excellent technique to use when you’re feeling almost too anxious to work or when you just can’t stand to face a project (but have to do it anyway). It lets you put your notes and materials together in an almost rote way that also helps you point out any gaps in your materials or thinking. You don’t need heavy-duty, deep thought to get started. The only requirement for success is that you actually do ‘get started’ — the organizing will take care of itself.

So, here’s the strategy:

Phase 1 – Just Get it Down

Using the smaller size post-it notes, write down every single idea you might want to use. Write each idea as a declarative sentence. Print the ideas for easy reading.

If the idea is not your own, put a code in the corner of the post-it notes so you can later find the relevant article and page.

At this stage, your aim is to write down every idea that could be possibly be relevant. Don’t edit yet. When you’re finished you should have a pile of Post-it notes–each displaying a single idea. This is the prelude to organization. In the next stage, you bring order to your pile of miscellaneous ideas.

Phase 2 – Weed and Categorize

Now, pick up one Post-it note at a time. With each Post-it  note you have to decide whether or not to use the idea. If you decide not to use it, just discard it (or if you can’t stand the idea of discarding it, put it in an envelope labeled “scraps.”)

If you do decide to use it, stick it on the poster board. Use one of the larger Post-it notes to assign a category to it and place the larger Post-it note with the category name at the top of the board. Make sure the smaller (“idea”) Post-it note goes below it.

Follow these steps with each smaller Post-it note you’ve created. Whenever you encounter a note that doesn’t fit into a pre-existing category, just take another large Post-it note and use it to create a new category. Remember, all you’re doing with each small Post-it note is deciding whether you want to include it and, if so, how to categorize it.

You do this until you have all your Post-it notes on the poster board(s). You’ll end up with columns of small notes under larger notes listing the categories.

Phase 3 – Straightening Up

The next step is to put the small Post-its into linear order within each category. You can do this using any system that makes sense to you. I find it helpful to slightly indent smaller Post-it’s that support a point being made by other Post-it’s. Do this for each category.

When you’ve finished that, put the categories, themselves, in order. Number them, peel them off, and put them back in the proper order.

Often when you do this, you’ll discover missing pieces in your research. Whenever you realize something is missing, make a note of it on a Post-it of a different color so that you will see where you need to get more information to fill in the gaps.

You did it! Your ideas are now organized. You can write up an outline from the poster board Post-its or just use the raw poster board itself as your outline for writing.

Many graduate students have found this simple method to be highly effective. I like it because it’s a low-tech but highly effective way to get organized. Moreover, it’s one that will get you going no matter how insurmountable your task seems.

You should note that there are several software programs that will let you outline and easily move entries around. At one time, I used a now defunct DOS-based program called MaxThink. However, there is real value in doing all of this by hand. Physically moving around pieces of paper that represent ideas makes the process of organizing easier and more effective.