What are we “putting down” when we “put it down on paper”: a current of thought, a torrent of emotions, the first incisions of a decision? Flannery O’Connor said that she writes in order to discover what she knows. And as research into writing shows, the act of tracing your thoughts across a page can make you more productive, more emotionally aware, and a less irrational decision maker.
Getting Things Done author and TED speaker David Allen emphasizes that your mind is for processing, not for storage. Storage of information, after all, can be outsourced in any number of ways, including writing down your to-do list on a pad of paper. The insight underlying this is that attention is a finite resource, one that gets depletedover the course of a day. So if you’re walking around thinking about what you need to do next–rather than thinking about how you’re getting to get it done–you’remisspending your neurotransmitters.
Productive people take better notes: if somebody is dropping knowledge on you, writing down what they say allows you to commit your attention to next insight–rather than trying to remember the last one. Like the Chinese proverb says, you can trust the faintest of ink more than the strongest of memories.
As you take more and more notes on awesome things said and read, you can amass an awesome bank of knowledge. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.
Journaling in particular helps you see how you have grown. Harvard Business School research director Teresa Amabile has discovered that people feel more engaged, more productive, and have a greater sense of meaning in their work when they record even the most miniscule of accomplishments within their days. She calls thisthe Progress Principle: the more you’re aware of your progress, the more involved you’ll feel in making it continue to grow–another reason to make a ritual of writing about what’s happened.
University of Texas psychologist James W. Pennebaker has found that writing about their lives helps people to organize their thoughts and find meaning in their traumatic experiences–from people diagnosed with HIV to Vietnam veterans. This is crucial, since the more meaning you find in your difficulties, research shows, the more resilient you’ll be in over-coming them, which reminds us of how the happiest people often have the hardest jobs.
The last reason to write about life: it helps you study your emotions, which makes you wiser, faster.
“What we construct as wisdom over time is actually the result of cultivating that knowledge of how our emotions behaved,” says USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, “and what we learn from them.”
This reinforces Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s recommended first step for making better decisions: buy a notebook.