Originally published by Stephen Guise on his personal website.
The main, overarching reason? The paper is outside of your mind. This creates several advantages.
1. Paper can hold unlimited data
If I give you a sheet of paper containing 300 numbers, how much of the sequence can you memorize in 30 seconds? Most people will max out at probably 10–30 numbers. But the humble piece of paper “memorizes” all 300 the instant they’re written. Unlike your mind, you have no data limit for your pencil.
2. Complex problems are easier to solve on paper
I was a math wiz. I used to hate it when my teacher told me to show my work. But as impressed as I was with myself, it’s easier, more reliable, and equally correct to work out problems on paper. Some math and life problems are too complicated to solve in your head.
3. You can’t hide from the truth when it’s looking at you
The mind is easily distracted, especially when faced with an uncomfortable problem. Most problems we face in life are not urgent ones. They’re things like feeling lonely, not finding your work fulfilling, and wanting to lose 30 pounds. None of these problems will ruin your life today, they will slowly eat away at your soul over the course of many years.
Problems often resemble a weak poison. You know something’s not quite right, but in time, you can get used to the feeling of being “off.” It’s only when you address and solve your problem that you feel the massive difference of say, getting healthier.
If you put your problem to paper–it doesn’t have to be public–it will be there for a long time. This is significantly different than a thought, which can come and go in mere seconds.
When you think, “I should find a church that suits me,” and have the same unproductive and passive thoughts about it for the 33rd time this year, it’s exactly 32 times more than necessary. It’s also not solving your problem. Paper solves these wasted “duplicate thoughts,” and makes it easier to see what actions you can take to move forward.
4. It’s much easier to focus
I have spent double digit hours looking at screens before, whether they are computer screens or TV screens (video games). I don’t know if I’ve ever sat down on my bed and thought about something for even two hours straight. The mind wanders when the eyes see things in the physical environment, and even if not, the mind wanders on its own with no physical focal point.
It’s remarkable how much easier it is to focus on something in the physical world. It’s just the way our bodies are wired. So you can have the same problem, one on paper and one in your head, with the former being dramatically easier to focus on solving.
Paper = Written Word
Paper has some serious upsides! Of course, when I say paper, I really just mean the written word. You can write things down on a computer or cell phone, too. In fact, physical paper writing is usually a bad choice for me, given that I type so much faster on a keyboard.
Some people use journaling to directly or indirectly deal with life. This is a great practice because it will essentially bring your issues into the physical realm. That sounds bad, like you’re giving life to a monster, but it’s actually good because the single greatest attack against life problems is exposure. The problems that linger are those that remain in silence, safely away from any of those pesky solutions.
Aside from a journal or in addition to one, I’d consider some kind of challenge notebook in which you work out some of your struggles on paper and then come up with suitable challenges to overcome them. To start, just spill out your thoughts onto paper, and you’ll eventually find the root.
Solve It On Paper Example: “I Feel Lonely Sometimes”
Why am I lonely when I have so much to offer? I don’t see any difference between me and the people who are happily married with lots of friends. I make people laugh all the time, people seem to like me, and women respond positively to me and flirt when I actually talk to them (instead of my other move of trying to get to know them by occasionally glancing at them). Hmm… I suppose one difference between me and those with robust social networks is that their lifestyle, workplace, and personality naturally brought them relationships, whereas my lifestyle/career is naturally very isolated and my personality is sometimes (though not always) reserved.
I’ve definitely seen a difference while traveling. I find a lot more friends and romantic interests while traveling compared to home life. I’m significantly more outgoing when I travel. It seems then, that in order for me to obtain the sort of social life I desire, I need to adjust either my lifestyle/environment, my outgoingness, or both. There’s no evidence that I’m unlovable, and there’s a lot of evidence that good things happen when I put myself out there. So, the solution could be as simple as joining more groups that interest me, traveling, practicing being more outgoing, or making a greater effort to socialize with acquaintances to see if friendships form. It’s not that it’s difficult to do these things. But they require INTENTION, and I haven’t been intentional, so I haven’t done them! Makes sense.
- Challenge: Join a group of interest (look at meetup.com, church groups, sports leagues)
- Challenge: organize more pickup basketball games to expand my social network
- Challenge: create a meetup group
- Challenge: travel long term
See how it has a conversational and explorative tone to it? I’m not judging myself, I’m not pressuring myself, I’m just thinking my unpolished, raw, honest thoughts onto the page, and seeing where they lead me. It’s almost like I’m venting to a friend, but also playing the role of the friend, trying to be constructive and supportive. This is MUCH easier to do on paper than in your head.
When you do this, it should naturally lead you to challenges that could improve your situation. As for the challenges — this is important — they may or may not be the solution, but they are a START. And I wouldn’t say that I have to do them, either. I’m stating something I want to improve and saying, “Hey self, if you want to improve your life, now you know exactly where to begin.”
Starting is everything! Even if the challenges themselves aren’t THE solution, they will teach me a lot and likely lead to a solution down the road.
Having the challenges on paper makes them much harder to ignore, doesn’t it? They’re right there, looking at you. And a final note is that the challenges need not be intimidating! Make them mini! Another possible challenge for this example is to simply say “hi” to at least one stranger per day. That’s pretty easy, and who knows what might come of it? It could lead to meeting new people, developing conversation skills, boosting confidence, or becoming more outgoing.
When it doubt, write it down!