Have you ever been stuck on a problem for hours or even days? Mulling it over in your head, turning it this way and that, and getting absolutely nowhere. Then finally, going to talk to somebody about it and… instantly know the answer after describing the issue to them.
What’s going on there? I have a theory.
Of course — and this alone is enough to convince me to write things down, despite being so banal — human memory is incredibly unreliable. We forget things, we miss the important details, and we even misremember facts. All the time! Writing things down allows us to minimize the negative impact of those unfortunate qualities of our brains. But there’s more to it!
1. Draw a larger map
Humans rarely think in complete sentences, let alone paragraphs. A lot of the time, we get caught in mental loops, endlessly going around and around, fixating on a problem or a single idea, and not seeing anything else.
It’s a little like setting out to explore a new city… by walking around and around your block for a couple of hours. That’s why you’re often not making any progress when you try to work out a problem in your head.
But when you describe your problem to somebody else, you are forced to look again at the surrounding context simply to be able to explain the situation to the other person. You are forced to take a better look at things you possibly already knew but were either taking for granted or simply weren’t paying attention to. And now, all of a sudden, you see the full picture, and you no longer need their help — you figured it out! “Never mind,” you say, and walk back to your desk (or end the Zoom call).
Writing things down has a similar effect. Moreover, when you write things down, you frequently create a map that’s larger than what you can comfortably hold in your head. Not only you’re more intentionally looking at things that were only on the periphery of your attention, you’re looking at more things at the same time. You’re seeing more dots and having an easier time connecting those dots.
2. Glean deeper insights
The opposite is often also true. Occasionally when you work out a problem in your head, you end up jumping between different angles without giving any of them enough time to develop. You only scratch the surface and move on to the next angle. In those cases, sitting down with a pen and paper, and spending a little more effort and time, causes you to look at your problem from each angle long enough that you start to notice deeper connections. Connections that can lead to deeper insights.
Insights about self
It’s not a stretch to say that any self-improvement starts with self-awareness. You cannot change that which you’re not aware of. Carl Jung famously said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”
Just as you can’t see the expression on your face, it’s hard to understand your own attitudes, beliefs, and mental models without a “mirror.” Coaching is by far the best mirror your money can buy. But writing down your thoughts is the close second, and it’s absolutely free!
The more you write, the easier it is for you to understand yourself — what quirks you have, what you value in life, what makes your soul sing and fill with energy, what drains you, and what’s holding you back.
Writing things down also makes them more tangible. There’s a big difference between deciding to start working out regularly and writing your intention down on a piece of paper. Even if you’re not going to share it with anybody else, your written intention becomes a part of the physical world in a way that’s harder to forget or ignore.
3. Evolve your thinking, evolve yourself
Another benefit of writing down your thoughts is that it allows you to examine your thinking over time. It could be just a fun observation: “Oh, I used to think I knew everything — how funny!” But every so often, while flipping through your notes, you find a pattern that teaches you something about yourself or a topic you’re exploring. Something you wish to dig deeper into, perhaps. And it compels you to explore what else is possible and sets you off on a new course.