Switching Modalities

Whenever I’m in the process of working on something, I find it useful to switch modalities. By this, I mean going from one way of working to another; seeing the work from a different perspective.

For example, this blog post started as a series of notes scribbled in a (paper) notebook. That was one modality. When my ideas were more definite, I switched to writing a draft in Ulysses. That’s another modality. I think differently when I’m working on paper than when I’m writing in Ulysses; writing words in a text editor happens at a higher level of granularity than thinking about concepts. Instead of thinking about what ideas I’ll get across, I’m thinking about how I’m getting them across.

There’s a point in the process where the draft is done, and I need to switch modalities again. I upload the post to WordPress, but I don’t publish it yet. I find that looking at it as it will appear on this blog reveals all sorts of things I missed; I’m now approaching the work as a reader and can spot gaps in the reasoning. In this editing phase, I also correct grammatical problems. For some odd reason, I don’t catch them when I was in the text editor. I need a new way of seeing the work (the preview in WordPress) to spot them, and switching from the text editor to the publishing system does the trick.

Sometimes — when I have a bit more time or a text requires particular attention — I also check the WordPress draft in a mobile web browser. Switching to the smaller screen size reveals all sorts of issues I hadn’t noticed before. This, too, is a modality switch; the mobile screen is a context that allows me to see the work in a different perspective. It prompts ideas and refinements I wouldn’t have spotted otherwise.

Modality switching is good for more than just writing; every creative endeavor can benefit from it. When I used to paint, I’d occasionally take a step back from the canvas and squint at the painting. Seeing it small and blurry would allow me to see the composition as a whole, without details. And whenever I’m working on a navigation structure for an information environment, I switch between text-based outlines and visual sketches of how menus will be laid out.

Switching modalities is also useful in group settings. I’ve been in many workshops that revolve around conversations prompted by presentation decks. This is one modality — one that gets old fast. There comes the point when the group must switch; for example, by sketching out ideas on paper rather than talking about them. Inevitably, the switch is a catalyst for new ideas to emerge.

Changing modes of thinking is a quick and easy way to quickly flesh out ideas, and to get unstuck. For much of my career, I did it unconsciously (and therefore, ineffectively.) Now that I understand it better, I pay attention to how I’m thinking. If ideas are flowing, I stick to the mode I’m in; when I get stuck, I know it’s time to switch modalities. I can now switch very quickly and effortlessly; sometimes, just getting up and walking around will do. Cognition can’t be pushed… but it can be nudged.