For most people, thinking is this cerebral, ephemeral, elusive activity that’s going on with varying intensity almost all the time when we’re awake. While we’re often aware that we’re thinking, we definitely associate it with an intangible process that’s sometimes hard to concretise. I used to approach thinking this way too, but I don’t anymore. Since I set out on a journey to become a better thinker, I discovered the benefits of making thinking more physical. And by this I don’t mean literally wrangling with your thoughts or trying to beat someone with the power of your argument…

Making thinking more physical in its easiest from, one that works wonders for me, is simply… writing. I sit down with a pen and journal every day, and I write to think. I use my physical strength and dexterity to work with tangible objects to turn convoluted, fleeting, constantly escaping thoughts into concrete words and sentences. It’s a messy process, where I often write exactly as I think: in circles, in malformed expressions, in half-thoughts. It’s never anything you’d like to read (and sometimes also nothing I’d like to ever read either). But the outcome is worth it: my ideas become stronger, my mind gets clearer, and I become a better thinker. Here’s why writing works wonders in these areas!

Writing thoughts down gives clarity and structure

When you have to write something down, you need to concretise your thoughts. We all know this feeling when you’re putting together a message, say an important email, in your head and you think you got the perfect phrasing, but then when you actually sit down to write it, nothing looks quite like what you mean. This is because thinking doesn’t have the constraints of coherent phrasing, and it just flows uncontrollably in all directions – it lacks clarity, and certainly doesn’t have much structure. But when you start writing your thoughts down, this is how you clarify what you mean and reflect on what’s really going on in your mind. You also have to start expressing yourself in grammatically coherent sentences, which by default gives your thoughts more structure: nouns, verbs and adjectives mean that things need to be done by someone, in specific ways. It’s no longer just an idea – it becomes your concrete expression.

Writing thoughts down eliminates overwhelm

If you’re facing a problem or you have a lot on your mind, you’re likely going to experience an overwhelm that can be quite stressful and counterproductive. There’s just too much going on in your head to think clearly. I found that writing down exactly what’s going through my mind can really work wonders when it comes to eliminating overwhelm. I use the technique of the stream of consciousness, which means I write all the thoughts as they come, even if they’re interrupted or scattered or jumping from one thread to another. I write down whatever is going on in my mind. And I often find that this reduces the number of thoughts, their intensity and pace, and consequently – eliminates overwhelm. I can only write as fast and only one thing at a time, which forces my mind to slow down and process thoughts consecutively. Goodbye overwhelm, welcome calm!

Writing offloads memory

Writing something down means I don’t need to remember it. I’ve learned this lesson very early back in my business career, and it stuck with me in the form of to-do lists, post-it notes, and many notebooks for all kinds of areas of my life. If I have a lot to think about, especially if it’s a decision or a choice, I’ll be going through various arguments and points in my mind while reasoning. I simply know that if I write them down, I can always refer to my notes and I don’t need to stress over remembering all the arguments for and against I came up with. My short-term memory becomes free to deal with other things, and I feel less stressed.

Writing enables better processing

Suppose you’re facing a choice or a decision. You’ll be considering its various aspects, thinking about advantages and disadvantages, weighting pros and cons. If you try to do it all in your head, it’s a bit like trying to solve a complicated math problem without writing it down. Maybe it is possible, maybe you will get the right result, but why do it in your head if you can deal with it much faster and correctly in writing? Writing your thoughts down makes you a better thinker because you can process arguments much better in writing, the same way as writing mathematical expressions down makes everyone better at doing math. Try this, and you’ll be surprised with the results.

Writing thoughts down gives focus

While it often feels like you’re thinking about a million thoughts in any given moment, you can only write down one thought at a time. This simple fact means that you have to focus your mind on what you’re writing, and as a result all the other nagging ideas go to the background. You become solely and uniquely engaged in that one thought you’re writing down, and this focus means you can deal with the through quicker and more efficiently. Needless to say, it also makes you feel less scattered.

Before I leave you with a task, note that I emphasise writing, not typing. I don’t think typing is quite as effective as writing when it comes to becoming a better thinker. There’s something uniquely physical about putting a pen to paper that no computer keyboard can replace. There’s the weight of the pen, the yellowish colour of the pages, the smell of the notebook – all these make the experience more immersive and so force your mind to focus. Plus, looking back at pages and pages of what you wrote gives you a feeling of accomplishment you can rarely get from scrolling through a Word document.

And now, let’s put thought into practice!

Grab a piece of paper and pen right now. Set the timer for 10 minutes and write your thoughts down non stop. Did you experience any of the benefits I discuss above?

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Marta Stelmaszak Rosa
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I'm a researcher, academic and writer dedicated to becoming a better thinker. Every day, I practise thinkfulness: consciously adopting a structured approach to thinking in order to understand and change the world. The world needs all of us to become better thinkers, so let's start a thinkfulness revolution together!

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