The Monthly Newsletter as Thinking Tool

by moridinamael2 min read2nd Feb 201815 comments


Writing (communication method)Scholarship & LearningProductivity

At the start of 2014 I accidentally started writing a monthly newsletter for a handful of close friends, and I've mostly kept it up since then. It was originally supposed to be kind of commitment device for myself, a way of holding myself accountable to my 2014 goals by commiting to sharing my progress with those friends at the end of each month. It continued to serve that function for the next four years, but also became something much more useful than that.

The easiest, very high ROI step is to simply open up a new Evernote document on the first of each month and title it "February 2018 Update" or whatever. Then just try to keep that tab open. You'll find stuff to put in there. What I end up writing generally falls into a small number of categories:

  • Links to things that I think my friend would be interested in, with a bit of discussion of why I think it's interesting. These also serve as future reference material for me.
  • Updates on my progress toward some goal or another, usually written in a style meant to be at least readably entertaining. This lets me look back over the years and see exactly what I was doing and when.
  • Discovery of some new thing that obsesses me briefly that prompts me to write 10,000 words of evangelism about it (e.g. meditation, hypnosis, trigger point therapy, Alexander technique, Ghokale method posture, jiu-jitsu, longevity supplements, some new AI architecture, Mr. Rogers, EverQuest as an exemplar of Fun Theory, the ketogenic diet, at least four different exercise regimens) which serves as very useful reference material, which I tend to frequently refer back to when the topic ends up being something that I make part of my life.
  • At one point I started writing a story for my friends and sending it to them in installements, which gradually turned into a 50,000 word book over the course of a year.

You don't even have to share it with anybody, I suppose, but I suspect you'll find it much more motivating to actually write in it if you do intend to share it. I created a private Blogger blog in which all these monthly newsletters reside. You could probably do the same thing with a public blog.

That might prompt you to remark, "Congratulations, genius, you've rediscovered blogging." Perhaps that's fair. But I think it does help that I know I'm only writing for a small handful of close friends. For one thing, it gives me a specific audience to write for, which helps focus my thinking. For another, I feel less inhibited, because I know that no matter what I write, I won't end up having to defend myself from a troll.

And the final and most important distinction between a monthly newsletter and a blog -- and, I think, the place where all the value of this practice comes in -- is the time-locked nature of it. You have a month to jot down thoughts, then at the end of the month you have to "finish" those thoughts. Process all the garbage you may have dumped into your Evernote document into something that your friends will actually want to read all the way through. This accomplishes a lot of things.

  • It's a cure for the goodism that leads you to have fifteen unfinished drafts of blog posts that never see the light of day. You've got a month. Wrap it up.
  • You're forced to organize your random notes and copy-pastes and unlabeled links into something readable enough for others that it ends up passing as powerful reference material for your future self.
  • Your thinking on a given topic will "advance" in a way that it otherwise wouldn't. You're forced to finish and polish the stubs of thought processes that you may have thrown in. (A lot of this finishing and processing is happening subconsciously throughout the month. If you know you're going to have to share it at the end of the month, your brain will give you something worth sharing. Without that pressure, your thoughts just tend to continue on, going in circles for years without ever resulting in anything useful to even yourself. Or at least, mine do.)

And if all those specific benefits don't convince you, I suppose I'll add that I feel that the last four years would've been quite impoverished if I didn't have this habit. Or meta-habit, because it's become such an important part of my life that the newsletters are how I keep myself honest regarding my other important habits and goals. Plus I have four years of records of my own life and dense notes on a variety of topics that interest me, that I otherwise wouldn't have.