Why You Should Write Things Down

by Henrik Edberg

This is a reminder.

You probably already know all – or most – of this. But reminders can be useful.

If your memory is anything like mine it’s like a leaking bucket.

Since I’ve started to write things down more often I have also noticed – when reviewing old notes – how much my memory can leak.

The memory isn’t very reliable. Every time we remember something we recreate what happened rather than just replay a film from our mental archives. The recreation is directed by a number of things such our beliefs, our emotional state at the time and our self-image.

What you remember about an event may differ quite a bit from what someone else remembers. There is a wide variety of interpretations of reality and truth. And then when you try to remember that interpretation of an event later on it can change even more.

So we need external systems. And there are a lot of them to experiment with.

Until recently I have preferred to mostly keep it simple with paper and a pen. I feel that overcomplicated programs seems to encourage being busy rather than being effective. Getting a dozen things done quickly isn’t that helpful if what you are getting done isn’t that important.

I also use this blog not only to share useful tips and information but also to keep a record for myself of thoughts on different areas of self improvement. This has been helpful to remind myself of various ideas and techniques that can help me improve my life and of mistakes that are so easy to make.

Journaling

A few months ago I made an addition to the blog and the paper notebooks where I wrote my to-do lists, short notes and goals. I started journaling using my computer. This allowed me record a fuller picture of events, thoughts and emotions. Instead of being confined to small notebooks I could get it all down. This was a relief and allowed me to capture a whole lot more nuance and think things through more easily. I wish I had started earlier.

At the moment I use less paper. Instead I record thoughts, goals, ideas and then work on them using The Journal by David RM. From what I have seen so far, I haven’t used it long, it seems to be an excellent piece of software with a 45 day free trial. And I’m sure there are also a number of good and free alternatives out there too.

I still use small notebooks to write down my to-do lists and shopping lists for the day. But since my thoughts and ideas have grown to a quite a large number it’s easier to keep them in a one piece of software rather than a few notebooks. This also makes it easier to be more creative and find connections and combinations between different ideas. And since I have just started journaling I guess there are more insights to come.

So, I have already mentioned a few ideas on why you should write things down. Below are few more.

9 more reasons to write things down

  • Written goals are important. One thing a lot of very successful self improvement writers – Anthony Robbins, Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar and so on – go on and on about is the importance of having written goals. A written goal brings clarity and focus. It gives you a direction. And by rewriting your goals you not only reaffirm what your goals are. You may also have found new insights that bring more clarity and focus to your goal and life. A written goal is also a powerful reminder that you can use to keep yourself on track.
  • To remind yourself to focus. You can use paper or your screensaver or another program to give yourself reminders. Often we get caught up in our everyday business and lose track of what is most important. To keep yourself on track – instead of just keeping yourself busy with low-priority tasks – simply write down a reminder that can stop your thoughts when you see it and guide you back on track again. I like the reminder: is this useful? Then put that reminder where you can´t avoid seeing throughout your day.
  • Unloading your mental RAM. When you don´t occupy your mind with having to remember every little thing – like how much milk to get – you become less stressed and it becomes easier to think clearly. This is, in my opinion, one of the most important reasons to write things down. Feeling more calm and relaxed does not only improves your health but also makes life easier.
  • Clearer thinking. You can’t hold that many thoughts in your head at once. If you want to solve a problem it can be helpful to write down you thoughts, facts and feelings about it. Then you don’t have to worry your mind about remembering, you can instead use it to think more clearly. Having it all written down gives you an overview and makes it easier to find new connections that can help you solve the problem.
  • A record of what you were thinking. I have already noticed how interesting it is to just go back a month to see what I was thinking then. I believe that when you have kept a record of your thoughts for quite a while you’ll have some fascinating reading on your hands. It can also show you how you have changed and improved.
  • A record of your positive qualities. When I read what have written it is sometimes fuzzy and unfocused. But other times I’m kinda surprised at how clever I was. Keeping a written record could be a good way to remind yourself of your positive qualities.
  • Improve long-term focus on what’s important. Reminders that I described above can be useful to keep you on track in your normal day. But you can also use a journal as a way to keep an overview of your thinking over a longer timespan and to recognize both positives and negatives in your thinking. You may, for example, think of yourself as a healthy person but realise when you read through your journal that you have only been out running four times this month. This can help to spot trouble and keep you on track within a larger timeframe.
  • Become better acquainted with yourself. You may, for instance, have an image of your life where you are a positive person but discover when reading through your notes for the last month that you are negative about your job or a relationship in almost every entry. This might tell you something that you haven’t really paid much attention to about yourself and/or something about that job or relationship. This can bring clarity to your life.
  • Track your achievements. If you are working out or investing in stocks it can be useful to keep written record of your results and thoughts over a longer timespan. It can not only motivate you when you are feeling down about your perceived lack of positive results and let you see how far you have really come. It can also help you use problems and solutions from the past to find solutions to new problems (or readjustments to prevent problems before they even appear).

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{ 47 comments }

Marina @ Sufficient Thrust September 12, 2007 at 9:58 pm

Do you not GTD? *shock*

Henrik Edberg September 12, 2007 at 10:11 pm

Well, I´m probably using some of the GTD-tools. At the moment I´m experimenting with keeping it very simple. Maybe I´m somewhat of a GTD-minimalist right now.

Jones Loflin September 12, 2007 at 10:20 pm

I especially like your tip of how writing things down “unloads your mental RAM.” With so much information swirling around us and always too much to do, writing things down frees our mind to focus on bigger, more important issues or ideas. Even if it’s something as simple as “picking up my dry cleaning after work.” By writing it down, I don’t slow my mind down everytime I have to retain the information. Great blog!

Henrik Edberg September 13, 2007 at 8:25 am

Jones: Yep, unloading your mental RAM is a big benefit of writing things down. And I´m glad you enjoy the blog.

Valerie September 13, 2007 at 4:29 pm

I’ve been journaling for many years and have found that it’s a great “silent therapist”. The mere act of writing thoughts down can reveal hidden solutions to problems that you may not have realized when those thoughts were just floating around in your mind, unorganized. I might add that I journal on computer; not only do I type faster than I can handwrite but it also helps the throught processes flow better. Yours is a great blog!

Henrik Edberg September 13, 2007 at 5:06 pm

Thank you for your kind comment and for sharing your experience, Valerie. Seeing journaling as a “silent therapist” is great way to look at it.

Don Schenck September 13, 2007 at 5:50 pm

For those without the time to journal: I recently read of the idea of a one-sentence daily journal.

While it might not be the ideal, it WILL get you started.

All The Best,

– Don

SpinPapi September 13, 2007 at 9:57 pm

@Don: great idea! Twitter would be a good way to do that, especially if they’re more general thoughts you could share with friends about your day or where you are. You can even protect your entries if they’re of a more personal variety.

@Marina: GTD is great but it’s not for everyone, especially the whole “JUMP IN” collecting process. It can be eased into or adapted in various ways. Even Mr Allen admits he derived it from what people actually do…what already works.

Truthteller September 13, 2007 at 10:03 pm

Sheesh…men that journal! That just doesn’t sound manly…
or at least that’s what my buddies said, when I started.
Truth is that journaling is one of the most effective ways to expand your thoughts and generate ideas.

I’ve since come in contact with some very high power people who journal first thing every working day.

Smile, it looks really good on you!

Eduardo

Henrik Edberg September 13, 2007 at 10:12 pm

Don and SpinPapi: Yeah, I´ve read about that one-sentence daily journal too. And I agree that it sounds like an excellent idea. Gretchen over at The Happiness Project wrote two posts about it. Here´s the first one and here´s the second one.

Truthteller: Thanks for the comment. I´m glad to hear that journaling has been such a useful tool for you.

Matthew Cornell September 14, 2007 at 2:44 am

I agree – writing clears my head, and allows me room to think. Also, blogging regularly helps me express myself, and develop thoughts. I will say I don’t have written goals – I’ve just never done it. Maybe in the future…

Thanks for the tips!

Craig Cochran September 14, 2007 at 8:36 am

One of the true values of having written goals is that they help you make better decisions! In times of stress or when we are pressed we often fail to work our way through a rational thought process when faced with a difficult decision. We are influenced by the pressures of the moment.

Written goals define what you want to do and where you want to go and, in some ways, where you don’t want to go with your life. Written goals are typically defined during a logical process which incorporates your vision, your mission and your values. If you have worked your way through such a process, you often find that you see things much more clearly and it is much easier to make good decisions because you will already have thought about the consequences of those decisions – good or bad. As a result, it is much simpler to make and stand by good decisions that will help you reach your goals rather than ones that will lead you away from them!

Henrik Edberg September 14, 2007 at 2:56 pm

Matthew and Craig (good thoughts on why written goals are helpful), thank you for your comments.

elias September 14, 2007 at 5:23 pm

hi, very interesting indeed! But I didn’t understand your position concerning The Journal by David RM… How are you using it now?
elias

James September 14, 2007 at 7:34 pm

Another reason to actually write, rather than type/word process, is that it is uniquely expressive. Such unique expressions of an individual invest personal energies into the material being written. Having said that, recording material in any way is better than not, using the above excellent purposes for writing things down.

Andre September 15, 2007 at 5:47 am

Hi. My name is André and I write things down.
Well, I just use text files for different topics and collect e.g. arguments, quotes, key combinations, short stories (storytelling), my shoe size whatever…
Writing things down force me to to formulate or reword _memories_ (“You know what I meant – No, I dont.”) in a way, you can _understand_ it when reading it later. This is a process where you have to become more concrete. An idea gets “materialized” – the phrase becomes an object I can prioritize, sort, focus, reword, add something to it or remove it and so on… It may lead me to something or I recognize similarities between different _phrases_. So it becomes material of the thinking process. It helps to structure your subject, to go through it, think about it in a further way. It is more than a reminder.

Sorry it is not easy to describe this, especially if english is not the mother tongue ;-)

Dara September 16, 2007 at 4:41 pm

I agree that the more you write things down, the less stressed you are because you have a clear idea of what you should be doing. When you try to keep everything in your brain your priorities get muddled & you’re more unsure if what you’re currently doing is what you should be doing.

I tend to think of a million things at once so I need to write things down. I just use a paper notebook to write throughout the day, and then journal it or put it on a list when I get home from work. Being scatterbrained I tend to completely forget ideas if I wait until I’m @ my computer to journal it. I use software for journaling (a free one called Advanced Diary) & keeping my long-term lists.

Alan September 18, 2007 at 7:00 pm

I’m in my late 40′s. I remember a few years back, prior to PDAs and Blackberrys, when I used a simple paper planner. I just seemed so much more organized then than now.

Perhaps it’s because I tend to waste so much time trying to work with a “system”, that I feel less organized these days. I’m certainly what you would classify as a “techno-nerd” given that I have a Blackberry, Palm PDA, and my office uses software for group time management. But somehow, it just seems to disappear into a fog.

Only writing things down seems to work for me. (Perhaps this is related to “brain-types” or something.) Now, my question is, what type of planners do people actually write in?

I have another question as well. I would like to journal, but in my opinion, journaling should give you the feeling to express your deepest thoughts and emotions. My challenge is trying to come up with a way of doing this confidentially — I’m not up to any mischief, but many of my personal thoughts and internal debates and observations I consider to be private and I don’t want my wife or children to “stumble” across them. Any advice here?

Love this blog by the way…

KathyL September 18, 2007 at 7:54 pm

I keep a work journal that says what tasks I did, what people told me, what decisions were made, what incidents I might need to have logged for the future, class and meeting notes, and so on. I flip colors on to flag action items and key issues, and if I can’t find what I want that way, I grep it. I also keep a personal journal for sorting out my thoughts and planning personal goals. Sometimes that seems like a lot of writing but both are so integral to keeping me on track that I can’t give ‘em up.

Lone September 19, 2007 at 2:02 pm

I totally have a leaky memory. Combine that with some executive function issues (which I find is very common) and you have the makings of someone who doesn’t get tasks done, forgets what he learned, and applies very few of his grand ideas… sound familiar? Well, I agree, Pen & paper notes (very implementable because It requires the fewest steps) and journaling can be an amazing way to plug my leaky memory and figure out what I want to do. But I have found that it is not quite the killer app I need. I have started creating a hand written mind map for every day. I begin my day by acknowledging what I simply must do (the first mind map branch). Then, for the rest of the day, I record events, unique thoughts & observations. At the end of the day, I have a great picture of what happened, and I can compare it with my computer-based-Mindmap-life-Dashboard that I have developed for myself (Using Freemind or Mindjet). This is my ultimate big picture journal. By the next morning, I have a fresh agenda that is appropriate for the many roles of my life (friend, father, business owner, advocate, son, Christian, Bill payer, Lover, writer…)
I have begun applying maps to conversations I am having. It forces me to listen more. Suddenly I am able to see the big picture and express it to them using their own words. It allows me to summarize and be sure that what I heard is what they meant. Then later, I can easily recall what their major points were. Yes, it only took a few months for my friends to get used to me & my ever present clip board. But they love to talk when i have it.
All your objections to using a system like this are probably enough to stop you from using it. But you haven’t even begun to touch the inner wisdom and direction that using this crutch will allow you to find.

I think I am going to add this to my blog. – then I need to create today’s map.

Ben September 19, 2007 at 10:37 pm

The Scottish comedian Billy Connerly never writes his stand up performances down as sponteniety is/maybe lost. And his performances do have a very as if they’re being made up on the spot feel to them. That is one of his strong points.

There is a feeling that writing something down can kill it, or stop it’s development too early? Just offering a counter thought.

Cathy September 20, 2007 at 2:30 am

@Alan: How’s your Treo working out for you? I’ve been thinking about a smartphone as a way to try to keep track of at least some of the things that occur to me at a time I can’t do anything about them on the theory that, at least most of the time, I do have my cellphone with me. I can see why that wouldn’t be a good journaling tool ;-) , but does it at least help with the more mundane things in your life?

TIA!

Henrik Edberg September 21, 2007 at 4:46 pm

Alan: The Journal by David RM, that I link to in this article, has password protection to ensure privacy.

Todd Baxter October 1, 2007 at 11:45 pm

Great article. I always try to write things down. I to use to use only paper notebooks I use to carry from 4-6 of them with me. Now I use OneNote from microsoft. I know alot of people hate microsoft and the mere mention of a program of their being good is unheard of. But I think its the best program they have ever written.

They do have a 60 day trial on this program…
http://us20.trymicrosoftoffice.com/product.aspx?re_ms=oo&family=onenote&culture=en-US

The thing I like the most about it is the search feature. While its great to write things down, if you cant find the information, it useless to write it down. OneNote solved that for me. Also like that you can embed files into your notes. Like emails, pdf files, sound files and video. Nice to always find my old notes.

Marcos October 17, 2007 at 4:08 pm

Hi, thanks for your efforts in giving us food for thought. I am at the moment trying to change my life. I shall try your suggestion on writing it all, can’t carry much with me so I shall use a soft called “zulu” that is freeware (at the moment 17/9/07) and will run from a pendrive. Dara’s sugestion of “Advanced Diary” is no longer for free. Kind regards to all. Marcos

Durai December 28, 2007 at 9:38 am

I have created a simple page for 2008 resolution, after reading your blog post.

http://writer.zoho.com/public/duraionly/Write-It-Down

thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Happy New Year.

-Durai.

Mohit March 13, 2008 at 4:43 pm

The more you can write down, the more you are free to think. Make sure your notebook is of the size where you’ll take it *everywhere* with you. i will often forget to take my phone, but almost never forget my notebook.

At first it seems weird to write stuff down. but once you start doing it, it becomes addictive. You never know when you’ll want to refer back to that suggestion for a dive bar, book, website, or product or when you’ll want to remember an intelligent quote or advice from a friend.

elena March 16, 2008 at 12:53 am

I totally agree with you, Mohit.

Writing down helps in collecting and organizing your thoughts. There is great wisdom in writing down our thoughts.

“One minute spent writing it down will do more to bring it about than ten years of dreaming, wishing, and talking about it.”

Best Wishes
Elena

Miguel Wickert (Pineiro) April 6, 2008 at 9:17 am

Excellent article, I use the journal software as well. Thanks for the tips.

Pavani June 13, 2008 at 8:21 pm

I am really impressed by what writing things down can do..though many of what it said were my reasons for thinking about writing a blog or a journal… this is my motivation to start it today..
It boosted up my energy and my positive feeling towards writing everything down.
I make small notes bearing name ‘Things to do’, ‘shopping list’, ‘tasks for today’..though they do a great job in getting things done..they are just reminders..but they don’t give me a record of past..
I used to write down everything I discussed in a meeting with my professor..
When I go back and read my first meeting’s notes..I can clearly notice that I bearly remember even the most imporant things that we discussed.
This proves how bad human memory could be in regard to remembering past..
I am starting a write a jounal from today to give my memory what it’s lacking..

ABHAY July 26, 2008 at 2:20 am

i stumbled upon you blog and found it very inspiring.
thanks for all the nice thoughts.

Husna August 13, 2008 at 1:55 pm

Thanks for the post. I would also like to share a link to help newbiews on HOW to start writing:
http://ignore-inc.blogspot.com/2008/08/wri-0001-newbies-guide-to-writing.html

Mark August 16, 2008 at 8:42 am

I chanced upon your blog and have found it to be useful.

I have started journalising my thoughts/tasks etc for about 6 months, using microsoft excel.

One thing i want to add is i don’t think i can ever achieve the level of productivity and creativity i am enjoying now without penning them down and organising it.

Thanks for the blog.

Birdie September 5, 2008 at 10:09 pm

I use a program called DayNotez that syncs with my computer and my PDA. I can journal, record things that I am grateful for, good things that I did… and I dont have to carry a notebook with me. I had a paper-based journal/planner for years, and the PDA is just so much neater and organized – and small. I have a thought, jot it down, and its there, where ever I want it.

David September 9, 2008 at 2:40 pm

I have never “journaled” in my life, but I have occasionally kept a journal.

oho boho April 6, 2009 at 3:34 pm

this is good idea. I’ll try it. 10x

Wiwin Siswanty April 15, 2009 at 8:05 am

this blog is so inspiring:):)
it nice i can found it

tip May 20, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Thanks for a lovely site, I am very impressed :-)

prince b. July 31, 2009 at 3:19 pm

This blog has added to what i had already, thanks 4 ur time and energy, may God replenish u.

Martyna August 22, 2009 at 10:36 pm

Interesting article.
I agree with writing things down for the two reasons (both mentioned in your list): the RAM thing (I always get stressed out about having to remember stuff and forget it anyway, making myself even more stressed) and it’s always fun to read throug old notes – “Oh dear did I really think that?”
The rest of your blog is great too.

Chet from Malaysia September 11, 2009 at 3:58 am

I use DavidRM’s The Journal, too, and have started archiving old electronic journal entries written using other software into it – it has a good search function to help look up stuff.

The Journal, however, is for “regular” journalling. For quick notes, short notes, also pictures and URLs, I’m now using Evernote. It also allows me to share my own stuff between my desktop and netbook.

Bill in Detroit January 18, 2010 at 6:23 am

Sonce I can’t find a smartphone with a big enough keyboard to be useful, I keep track of stuff in an undated weekly planner. It may be crude, but it’s effective.

I REALLY think that at least a few of us would turn loose of some coin for a netbook that could jump on the T-Mobile or Verizon network and still fit in a small holster on our belt.

Ishara January 27, 2010 at 4:38 am

Elise i just wanted to tell you that if you want to come to my house. from Ishara

sagl?khaberleri February 26, 2010 at 1:43 am

thanks. Good article good post

Nichy March 26, 2010 at 9:11 am

Hello , everybody . I want to practice my skills of english.

What should I do? > <

Me from New England March 29, 2010 at 2:15 am

I used to use an electronic/software journal until my hard drive crashed and I lost everything. Now, I enjoy writing in a paper diary/journal. No battery-power needed. I do use the MyDiary app for the iPhone when I can’t take my diary with me.

As far as being or not being a manly thing, I suggested to a male friend to write his ideas in a notebook. That sounds much better than “keep a journal” or “keep a diary”!

saglikhakkindahersey August 25, 2010 at 4:39 am

good post , very very thank u

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