Special treat this Monday morning: guest blogger Art Decker shares some fascinating research into the neurological benefits of writing things down.
There is no substitute for a pen and paper. But the pen has to be a good pen, one that is a pleasure to write with. For some people a good pen is a plain ball point pen from the local drugstore. For others, it is a $1,000 fountain pen that comes in its own case and gives its user the feeling of painting on paper. The paper, too, must be good. If your pen scratches the paper, writing things down will not be a pleasure — and you won’t do it.
I can hear the naysayers already. Why not just use an electronic gadget? You can find to-do list and productivity software, much of which can be downloaded free, that is geared to any productivity system you like — GTD (David Allen’s Getting Things Done), ZTD (Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done), Sally McGhee’s Take Back Your Life, or Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits. Why use caveman tactics like pen and paper when you can wholeheartedly embrace the 21st century?
Because pen and paper are better for your brain, that’s why. The heart of the GTD system and other productivity systems is to get ideas out of your brain and into containers or buckets, or at least onto to-do lists and calendars. The system takes over so you don’t have to think.
Here’s the problem with that notion, though: personally, I am in favor of thinking. I LIKE keeping information in my brain. I regard information residing in my head as a GOOD thing.
And maybe you think I’m a dinosaur, but the best neurologists agree with me. Writing things down physically, using a pen and paper, rewires your brain. If writing is a pleasurable experience, as it will be if you use the good tools that I recommend (pens that are a joy to use, paper that soaks up ink instead of forcing you to scratch the ink across the surface), then you get an added benefit — your brain will associate being organized and getting things done with the release of pleasure-enhancing neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.
1. Writing improves verbal abilities. Researchers at the University of Washington (see “The pen may be mightier than the keyboard,” Science Daily Sept. 18, 2009) discovered last year that children who write fluently with a pen and paper write longer, faster, and produce better quality work than children who write equally fluently with a keyboard. Think about that. If you are in an information-driven field, don’t you want your verbal abilities to be at their peak? If you consistently compose everything on a keyboard and you never write, your ability to conceptualize ideas and express them articulately may be impaired. Writing things down could push your verbal abilities — for speaking as well as for writing — to the next level.
2. Writing keeps information in our heads. According to neurologists, we are less likely to forget things if we record them in a way that involves more than one sense. If I write something down, I’ve recorded it using my muscle memory and my eyes (since I look at what I am writing as I write it). Better yet, I could read my writing aloud to myself, so that the information is stored in my brain in one more way. If I use a keyboard to write, I am only recording my words in one way, through my eyes as I watch the letters appear on a screen. If you’ve ever crammed for a test, you know that the stuff you stare at often enough does not necessarily stick with you — it goes in your short term memory and then it’s gone. Now, if you are a fan of getting stuff out of your head into buckets, a la GTD, then you may regard this as a good thing. Me, I’d rather have all the facts related to my work at my fingertips — which to me means securely coded into my brain cells where I can access them faster than any computerized device in my arsenal.
3. Writing keeps our brains young. Maybe your bones are getting more brittle as they age (weight-bearing exercise is the key to avoiding that problem, but that would be a whole other post!), but your brain isn’t. Your brain is still plastic and malleable — at least it can be, if you make a point of continuing to learn new things as you get older. Sitting in front of a screen and typing all the time just won’t do that for you. It will help, yes. There is new research showing that our brains are affected by Internet research, and the effects are not all bad. But writing things down wires the new things you are learning into your brain, causing you to form new neural connections, and keeping your brain plastic — and young.
Still don’t believe me? Check out the Levenger’s catalogue, or any purveyor of the fanciest pens and paper, like Fountain Pen Hospital. You’ll notice something. The people who are addicted to fine pens and paper are doing fairly well for themselves in life. They have to be, or they wouldn’t be buying $1000 pens — or even $100 pens. Do those people attribute their success to their fine writing instruments? I don’t know, but I do know that the people I know who are addicted to physically writing stuff down are also sharp as a tack mentally — at any age. Think about it.
Art Decker is a division manager with Self Storage Company, which operates a group of websites, including a California self storage locator. Art leads a busy life and often travels between sites, like from Texas to the New York self storage site. As a result, Art has developed a strong interest in topics such as productivity, organization, and balancing work and home life.