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Pen & Paper: Analog Tools for a Better Brain

Effective leadership using analog tools such as hand writing for a better brain management

Why are so many successful executives and serious creatives clutching notebooks and pens these days?

From Leonardo Da Vinci to Thomas Edison, from painters and poets to engineers and serial killers, creative people use notebooks to capture and develop their ideas. But haven’t digital tools made pens and paper outdated?

In The Organized Mind, Daniel J. Levitin showed how the latest brain research explained why we feel mentally overloaded. The brain’s processing capacity is estimated at 120 bits per second; a conversation with a single person takes up half that capacity. Too many inputs, including stray remember to do thoughts, eat away at our processing capacity.

Truth is, we need external storage systems to download what we need to remember, to save both our energy and our ability to focus on what’s important.

Can a simple notebook really help navigate the digital deluge? Try an easy experiment, using the latest brain science and centuries of experience, to see how you can customize the power of pen and paper for an electronic world.

Handwrite your notebook

Research supports the notion that the act of handwriting activates areas of the brain not turned on by typing. And most of us type (or tap) faster than we handwrite. Slowing down the capturing ideas gives the brain more time to process and analyze.

In addition, we more easily recall handwritten notes than typed notes. In part, we remember things according to where we “saw” them. All digital notes look alike, while handwritten notes appear on different parts of a page, activating our positional or spatial memory

So start with a handwritten notebook, rather than digital note-taking.

Tools are important

Take time to choose the right tools. Good tools show respect for the process and for your ideas, but don’t get tools that are so dear you are afraid to use them.

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, likes cheap spiral-bound school theme books so she can scribble away and not feel constrained by the importance of expensive paper. I carry small bound notebooks in refillable leather covers—about A5 or 6×8 inches. I love smooth, thick paper; wide, generous lines; and notebooks that lay flat.

Test some options, especially before you invest in an expensive notebook.  Do you want blank pages or lined? Loose-leaf pages to move around or a more traditional bound book? What size page do you want? Too small may feel too cramped; too large and it can’t be carried easily or surreptitiously pulled out when you’re bored.

Be picky about your pens or pencils, too. Choose what feels good in your hand and what flows smoothly when you write.

The most important test for your tools is whether you enjoy using them. Be willing to experiment.

Notebook-keepers debate whether to keep separate work and personal notebooks, or a notebook for each project, or a separate book for quotes and ephemera and notes on books read.  Or should it just jumble all together in one notebook?  You can decide which you like, but you might want to start with all your notes together, in chronological order in a single notebook. You can always create a simple index or use colored pens to mark sections you want to find later.

The Experiment

Play with your notebook long enough to make it a habit: start with at least a page a day for the next two months. 

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, suggested “morning pages” – three handwritten pages each morning, before getting out of bed, in order to dump negative thoughts and open the brain to creative ideas. Her book was written over 25 years ago; that “morning pages” are widely known among creative people is a testament to the power of this practice.

But you can start with just a page. You can write a full notebook page in 15 minutes or less. And you can write it whenever works best for you during the day.

Why a two-month commitment? Research says it takes 61 days — or two months — to develop a habit. You want to play with it long enough to see what it can do for you.

As with hitting the gym for your physical strength and stamina, consistency is important for training your brain to download. Keep your notebook close at hand. Scribble in it every day. Grab a few minutes before a meeting (or during a meeting, to keep yourself from fidgeting) or while watching TV (if something sparks a thought) or waiting on the bus.

Once you get comfortable with talking to yourself on paper, aim to have at least an hour each week for extended writing.

No matter your field or what project you are working on, you’ll find that new connections, ideas, or directions will pop up at the oddest times and places.  Don’t give in to what bestselling novelist Richard Bach called “the devil’s whisper” that you’ll remember it. You won’t; your brain is too busy. Write it down.

What’s in a notebook?

So you’re staring at your new notebook, pen in hand. Now what? Just talk to yourself. Plan a project. Brainstorm a speech opening or capture stories to illustrate a point. Look for connections, ways to cross-pollinate between your work and your personal interests. React to something you just learned.

If you’re attracted to a picture, a story, a quote, a factoid, a question, there’s a reason for the attraction. Capture it in your notebook and let it incubate. These can give inspiration when you thumb back through later.

Vent. Blow off steam on paper (rather than where a client can hear). Celebrate. Note your red-letter days, the incremental movements toward a bigger goal.

Ask yourself questions and answer them.  What results do I want from this report?  What opening would grab my team’s attention?  Where do I want to be in five years?  Why does X keep popping into my head?  What are some wacky ways to attract more customers?  Asking questions will jump-start your daily writing—and your thinking.

In your notebook, talk to yourself about what you are learning in training or classes, what’s happening in the news, what you’d like to see happen in your life or career, what you’ve learned about yourself by watching others, what connections you can make between what you’re reading—fiction or nonfiction—and your work or life.  It helps to see what you are thinking.

Be sure to date the entries.  Include references or sources, in case you want to refer to or quote something later. In the margin, label items you might want to come back to. When you fill a notebook, make a simple index on the last page of those items you marked.

What works for you

Your notebook can be a collection of scribbled fast-food napkins that you staple together. Use a cheap spiral notebook, fine Italian leather journal, sketch paper, Bic or MontBlanc, a mechanical pencil on a quadrille pad.  Whatever suits you.

The only thing that matters is that you use your notebook enough to learn what it can do, so it becomes a place to download and store ideas, a natural part of your creative idea-generating process, one you rely on with ease.

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