• Joel T. Sanders

Does Pen and Paper Allow You to Access Deeper Thinking and More Creativity Than Digital Mediums?


I've been absent from this blog since October, but decided to capture an insight here this morning.


I have been writing daily, but not online, and thus not sharing my thinking with you.


I've kept an old-school pen and paper journal for four years now, a habit that has deepened in recent months to what oftentimes amounts to more than an hour of writing every day.


I've also only recently started listening consistently to audio books. My walk to and from our office takes about 17 minutes. If I'm not reflecting on some aspect of work or life, I'll concentrate on a book.


The audiobook I'm listening to now is a 2010 book titled, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Although it's more than 10 years old at the time of this post, the takeaways are more relevant than ever: notably, that our hyper-connectivity has literally rewired our brains. In the process, we have lost much of our ability for sustained focus and coherent thinking.


Carr notes how neuroscientists have confirmed what earlier thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche realized: that machines transform who we are. In Nietzsche's case, a friend pointed out how his prose changed when he switched from writing on pen and paper to a typewriter later in life. Nietzsche agreed, confirming that his thinking had a more mechanical, machine-like quality.


Today, we know that the parts of our brains that we use most often literally grow larger than the parts we don't use. For example, the left hands of violinists cause the area of the brain that's responsible for manipulating the hand to be much larger and more developed than the corresponding parts of the brains in the rest of us.


Reflecting on this in my paper journal, I noted how that medium itself has probably resulted in a large, well-developed area in my brain for pen-to-paper, but not digital, journaling. From my entry this morning:


"Who I am here is literally, mechanically distinct from who I am in a Signal or WhatsApp group. I love this, because it binds me to explore truths—TRUTH—honestly and authentically. Nobody is ever likely to read these pages (even me). I can be honest, real, and explore. I can play with thoughts and ideas.


"Also, no editing is possible. I must find coherence and depth to my thinking in advance. There's no delete key. There's no combining sentences after the fact, or moving paragraphs. There's no projected economic gain."


Sitting on my table next to my paper journal is Cal Newport's new, and somewhat arcane, paper-bound time block planner. For the last 10 weeks, I've been starting my weekly planning there, writing out a longhand description of how I envision the coming workweek. Every day, after my journaling, I open the time block planner and map out how I plan to spend the day. I even open my digital Google Calendar to assist me, reminding me of meetings I have scheduled.


The redundancy might strike you—as it struck me—as silly. Why would you keep two daily calendars that say roughly the same thing? Isn't it redundant and unproductive?


The obvious winner, it would seem, is the digital calendar. But my own experience tells me otherwise, which is why I've continued with my arcane, redundant process. And now Carr's book brings empirical evidence to my hunch: pen and paper give me access to a whole level of depth and creative thought that's literally inaccessible in any other way.


Who I am is literally different on paper. The paper and pen force the mind to slow down and form thoughts with coherence and depth in advance. It opens up a whole area of creative thought that digital-only thinkers literally cannot access, because of how they've wired their brains.


The implications, I believe, are profound: users of old-school tools likely have access to a whole realm of intelligence and creative insight that's unavailable to those trapped in digital-only thinking.


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