How A Pen And A Notebook Can Change Your Life

Edward Bulwer-Lytton was the kind of guy who spent a lot more time with pens than swords. Because he’s the gentleman that first coined the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Which is true, so long as you’re not in a situation where a sword is a better option.

What Bulwer-Lytton got right about what pens can do is something I’ll leave up to people smarter than me to figure out. Get a couple pints in me, and we could argue the virtues of swords and pens for a while. For today, though, we’re going to talk about how great pen and paper are.

That is, when you put them together.

This is going to be a regular feature here on the blog: call it Tool Tip Tuesday or whatever alliterative goulash makes for a catchy tagline in the blogosphere. Because we can talk concepts all we want in getting from busy to done, but to make those concepts work, we need tools to help us do more of the important stuff.

Which brings to today’s tools: pen and paper, specifically paper in the form of a notebook. Preferably one you can carry around in a pocket or a small bag. Because while it may look cool to carry around War and Peace in blank form, it’s not terribly practical.

Here’s some reasons why you need to get a pen and a notebook and you need to start writing things down.

You remember better later

Like a lot of you, I take a lot of notes using a computer. Makes it easier to get all that information down. Which is true, but what’s also true is that by doing that I’m making it easier for my brain to stay lazy. Here’s what one study found:

Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand. As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes. In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.

Why did this happen?

Mueller and Oppenheimer postulate that taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop, and these different processes have consequences for learning. Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture. Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information. Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention. By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.

One theory that the research team of Mueller and Oppenheimer had was that students who took more notes by typing ended up with a lot of peripheral info that made them more successful on tests over the material. Since those tests happened later, all that “extra” data might make them better at retaining vital information. And you retain it longer.

Wrong again. Mueller and Oppenheimer included a study in which participants were asked to take notes by hand or by laptop, and were told they would be tested on the material in a week. When participants were given an opportunity to study with their notes before the final assessment, once again those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants. Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.

That pen and that notebook make it possible for your brain to process information in a more meaningful way. Works for college students, works for a business meeting, works for that weekly family meeting where everyone’s trying to cover what they’re doing the next week.

More on that last bit in the future. Because we’re not just here for the classroom or the boardroom. We’re here for your living room, too.

That…sounded a little creepy. I may need to do some work on the tagline.

Instead of banging away at the keys trying to capture the nuance of everything that was said like you’re transcribing that meeting for court, get a pen and notebook out. Make your brain work a little harder, and you’ll remember more later.

You literally can’t remember everything you think you can

Your working memory has a duration of about 10-15 seconds. If you don’t write things down, they’re gone. That’s according to Bruce Goldstein, and while we’d all like to argue with science, the fact is that your brain wants to do something with any information you try to put in it.

The machine between your ears can be terribly efficient at processing stuff. And one of the things it does is dump things out. Which you can counter with memory tricks and ways to retain info you need for things like tests.

This post isn’t about that.

It’s about getting that information down in a space you can look at later.

So when someone says, “Call me later,” write that down.

Or when you have that amazing idea for that business that’s going to take everything to the next level? Write it down.

Or you read something you think is amazing?

Write it down.

And that’s going to make it possible for your brain to get to work on other things.

You free your brain up to think about other things

Instead of trying to use up all the bandwidth you’ve got on trying to remember your to do list, by pushing that out to pen and paper, you’re giving your brain a shot at coming up with other stuff.

What I’ve found for myself is that since I’ve got places to put information I need later, I’ve freed up space in my head to come up with ideas. Or process larger problems. Or think ahead to the next thing I’m going to write about.

Since our brains can only handle so many things at once, make sure those are things you want to be working on by getting the other stuff down on paper.

If it’s in your head and you need to do it later?

Write it down.

If it’s in your head and you’re not sure what to do with it?

Write it down.

Why pen and paper?

Over the coming weeks you’ll see more posts on other tools that make life easier. That help you capture all that information you need and put it into a form that makes sense. But pen and paper works for a few reasons:

  • Simplicity: a pocket notebook and a pen covers a lot of ground.
  • Easy upgrades: no need for a WiFi signal to update that pen.
  • Infinitely hackable: there are all kinds of ways to use that notebook.

We’ll spend a lot of time here talking about why pen and paper works, and what kinds of things you can do with those.

Next Tuesday, look for the first post in the pen and paper series.

Probably with a headline like, “How Dead Trees Can Change Your Life.”

Now what?

Here’s the homework bit.

If you don’t already carry a notebook with you, get one.

And a pen.

Write everything down that comes to your mind this next week. And then bring it back. We’ll talk about what you’re going to do with those things you wrote down.

If we’ve got pen and paper around, all that stuff we’ve got taking up space in our heads? When we write it down, we remember better later. And it’s another step in helping us all get from busy to done.

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