I believe if something is important enough to remember, it’s important enough to write down. This doesn’t just apply to random to-do tasks or events to put on your calendar. I write down goals, ideas, what I spend money on and useful thinking points from books. The reason to write isn’t to keep records, but to be more aware.
In the popular productivity bible, Getting Things Done, Dave Allen suggests writing everything down on a notepad so you won’t forget. The purpose, according to Allen, is to take the burden off your memory. While I think this is important, it only touches on one of the reasons to write things down.
Writing Keeps You Aware
Writing focuses your thinking. When you write something down, you aren’t just creating a paper record, you’re changing the way you think about it. Writing down a goal changes a whim into a conviction. Writing down your expenses changes excessive spending from a bad habit to a conscious choice. Writing down your idea turns a vague suggestion into a clear concept.
Writing is like an upgrade to your thinking. In the normal flow of thought, you can’t edit typos and make adjustments. If you get distracted, it can be hard to return to your place. And since your short term memory is only about 5-9 items long, you can’t think over more complex ideas.
When you start writing things down, you have an upgraded level of thinking about them. Writing things down makes you more aware of opportunities and problems, like a temporary boost to your IQ.
The Virtue Isn’t in a Record
Over half the things I write down, I never look at again. For the other half, about three quarters of those, I’ll only look at once or twice, usually briefly. Only a small amount of the things I write down are needed for keeping records I’ll look at repeatedly.
If you’re stuck in the record-keeping mindset, writing everything down won’t make sense. It just doesn’t seem practical to write down every idea, expense, meal or to-do item. But, if you appreciate the role writing plays in keeping you focused, you can see why it is valuable, even if you throw away the writing soon afterwards.
What Should I Write Down?
Obviously you can’t write down everything. You can’t write down everything said in a conversation. Writing down everything you eat or everything you do can eat up a lot of time. Writing is valuable because it forces you to focus, so writing down everything would ruin the purpose.
You should write down anything you feel needs more clarity. If your finances aren’t doing well and you want more clarity, start writing down everything you spend money on and all of your income. If your studying habits need work, start writing down when you study, what you studied and for how long. If you keep getting distracted on important goals, write them down too.
Writing is sort of a universal productivity tool. It can focus your thinking in just about anything, so using it frequently is a good way to stay focused. Even something as simple as writing down when you procrastinate can be enough to stop it.
Where Do You Need to Focus?
If something is important and worth getting done, it is probably worth writing down. Ask yourself what things could use more focus in your life. Writing isn’t an instant cure that will immediately make you more productive. But it makes you far more aware of what needs to be done and how well you are doing it.
The first time I started writing out exactly what I needed to do, I finished three times as much work. When I started writing out my goals, I was able to focus on them far more than when they were just in my head. I’ve also found writing down my expenses, how I use my time or what I eat to increase my awareness of any problems.
If there is a part of your life that is unknown, inconsistent or in poor shape, you should consider writing more down about it. Write down ideas and make records while you’re working on it, and spend time writing your thoughts when you’re taking a break. If you can keep writing for a few weeks, it can reveal solutions to problems you didn’t even realize you had before.
I suggest committing yourself to writing something down for at least a month. Writing isn’t a natural habit, we weren’t born with the skill and it’s one of the first pieces of technology we had developed. As a result, if you don’t commit to continuing it for a few weeks, you probably will return to relying only on your short-term memory. Thinking is good, but writing plus thinking is even better.
Don’t try to write down everything. Pick just a handful of things you want to keep your focus on. And if you’re planning on making a commitment to write, you will probably want to write that down too.