How to think on paper? Here’s an updated version of the method that works best for me.
I use the following three building blocks, which I can combine in different ways.
Building block 1 – the sheet layout:
I use an A4 sheet in landscape format and divide it in 3×3 boxes of equal size – there’s no need for exactness and I do it without a ruler.
Alternatively, I can use 3 columns and make boxes of different sizes – but at the beginning, 3×3 boxes are easier to handle.
I fill the boxes in column 1, then in column 2 and then in column 3.
Building block 2 – the box layout:
I use each box for a simple small mind map. The size limit of the box will come as a surprise, but it has a number of advantages which I will describe in a moment.
Instead of mind maps, I can use diagrams, ordinary text with indentations or math terms.
Building block 3 – thinking tools:
I can use thinking tools as topics for the small mind maps, to stimulate my thinking about the problem, like: What are key questions? What are my options? How can I split the problem into smaller parts?
I find a personal collection of thinking tools very useful – I have a corkboard over my work table and can access dozens of tools and stimuli with one glance.
For me, this process has four main advantages.
First, a conventional mind maps works best with a couple of main branches of equal size. In problem solving however, I often want to develop only one or two branches over many steps, and this leads to an unsymmetrical, unbalanced mind map.
Secondly, moving from one box to the next needs a moment of orientation – where do I stand, and what can I do next? This re-orientation happens much more often in the 3×3 layout than in an ordinary mind map.
Thirdly, I find it easier to reflect on a previous thought in a new box than in a branch of an ordinary mind map.
Fourth, the combination of mind maps and thinking tools seems very powerful to me.
Depending on handwriting size, paper size and personal taste, we can experiment with 2×2, 3×3 or 4×4 boxes.
As a fourth building block I’m using a zettelkasten to organize my sheets – but that’s outside the scope of this comment.