The Genius Of Writing Things Down
There was this guy who always managed to push my buttons. He was a little bit superior. At least it seemed that way to me, and I always left a conversation with him feeling belittled and powerless. The most frustrating thing about it was that I wouldn’t behave like myself; he made me act like an insecure teenager. It riled me.
One day he came to me to talk about something work related and made a comment that implied women were less capable than men in some way or another. It was one of those sneaky jibes that comes disguised as a joke but that you know is meant seriously. In a conversation with anyone else I would have shot him down, but I said nothing.
As I walked away from him that day, with every metre I put between us I felt increasingly pathetic, and a mental image of the condescending look on his face began to nag at me incessantly. That afternoon I was trying to study but I kept finding I’d have to reread the same page three or four times because I was getting distracted. Not optimal.
I had read somewhere that you can let go of bothersome thoughts by writing them on a piece of paper and chucking them in the bin. It was worth a try. I wrote down what had happened, how it made me feel, how I should have acted, and exactly what I would have said if I could go back and do it all over again. Then I crumpled the piece of paper up and threw it away. Hours later, I walked past the bin and saw the discarded thought, at which point I realised I had completely forgotten about that conversation as soon as I had thrown it away.
Since that day, this has been my top tip to anyone who struggles with pointless rumination. I don’t imagine you could do this with just any thought; probably only the things that really don’t warrant your worrying about them (although you could argue that’s pretty much anything), and also possibly only the things you can’t do anything about. For this reason, if you’re going to give this technique a go, I’d recommend you start by asking yourself the question “can I actually do anything about this?” (and if the answer is “yes”, then “can I do anything about this right now?” If you can do something about it at that moment, then you probably should).
So how does this handy little trick work? I’ve read that when you write something down, you store the information in a different part of your brain than if you didn’t. I’ve also read that writing things down somehow bypasses your short term memory and helps the information to hunker down in your long term memory. Perhaps those things are true… What certainly would seem to make sense is that by writing something down you can to process the information more thoroughly. How often have you thought that something was really simple until you tried to put it on paper, or explain it to someone else? Having to form meaningful sentences about something causes you to analyse it in a more detailed and ordered way, and this helps you to make sense of it. This is why people so often consider teaching to be such an important part of learning; there’s really no better way to improve at something that to instruct others in doing it.
Another thing that writing can do is distance you from the ideas. It’s as if you’re actually taking the thoughts out of your head and putting them on the paper. Furthermore, with this technique, by throwing the paper away afterwards, you’re reinforcing the idea that those thoughts are not worth holding onto. Sometimes I use a similar technique when I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about what I need to do the following day. In that case though, rather than throwing the thoughts away, I fold them up and store them next to my bed. It’s as if, rather than telling my mind to “forget about this stuff completely”, I’m actually saying “you don’t need this now. Let’s just keep it safe down here until the morning”.
Another benefit of the act of writing is that it (virtually) falls outside the realm of multitasking. It’s almost impossible to write and do something else (like talk, for example) at the same time. I discover this repeatedly during sessions when I’m trying to talk to clients and make notes at once. Doesn’t work. Makes you look silly. So writing increases your focus and concentration in the moment that you’re doing it. This can help to foster a feeling of achievement as well as sense of finality or closure. A moment of focus like this will also help you to feel calm because there’s less conflict between different thoughts in your mind. Coming back to the original writing task, by combining a moment of calm with some focussed thinking about something that has been bothering you, you’re proving to yourself that you can think calmly about whatever that thing is (which is exactly what you were failing to do beforehand).
Research has shown that starting your day by writing a to-do list (or even just writing down the top three things that you need to get done) will increase your productivity that day.
Finally, writing things down engages the visual modality. When a thought is in your head, you’re not necessarily seeing it, and you’re certainly not seeing it in the orderly manner that a sentence would present to you. Once written down, you can actually see your problem in a new light.
So maybe you should start carrying a pen and paper around with you. The jury’s out as to whether typing has exactly the same effect. I suspect that, at least in many of the ways we’ve discussed, it’s probably just as good. Maybe some computer savvy life hacker out there should make a “thought logging” app. I’d buy it.
I run online courses that help people to let go of their self-sabotaging traits and create the psychological tools needed to maximise their potential at work, in relationships, in sport or their creative pursuits… Take the first module of the program for free to see what you can do to make a difference.
Here’s what one recent course member had to say about Thought Engineering:
“It felt like this perfect coming together of everything. Thought engineering, indeed. It’s like being the architect of a new inner (and thus, outer) world”
— Fiona Law, London