Thinking Strategy #1: Keep a (physical / paper) notebook with you

Photo: rawpixel


A physical notebook and a pen or pencil is key to enhancing your thinking skills. It’s not possible to remember all of your fleeting thoughts and ideas until you’re able to record them later. Voice recording your thoughts on your phone or other device until you can get to your notebook is fine if necessary. However,  the process of physically writing (or drawing) your ideas facilitates thinking.

Choose a paper notebook and a comfortable pen or pencil to carry with you to record thoughts and ideas. Both pen/pencil and notebook should be selected for comfort/ease of use. I create a pocket to hold miscellaneous pieces of paper by taping an envelope on three sides to the inside front and back cover. I decorate the cover with stickers or photos to make it more “me.” The point is to make the notebook a place that invites your doodling, miscellaneous jottings, mind maps, ideas and questions.

If you’re going to a cafe for a break, take your notebook and pen. Don’t know what to write? Write your questions… what do you wish you knew? Describe a problem or challenge you’re facing. Write five absurd solutions that could work in a science fiction world. Let words run freely from your brain, through your arm and hand to the paper. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense… practice freeing your thinking and capturing it in your notebook. And don’t forget to write your name and email address or phone number in the front along with the date you began the notebook. Some people include a note saying that they’ll offer a reward if a lost notebook is returned (and it’s worked!). I always date each entry. It’s fascinating to review your notebook after time has passed and it helps to generate new ideas!

Why use a notebook rather than your phone or computer? An expanding body of research highlights the benefits of writing by hand versus an electronic device. For example, researchers have found that longhand note-taking (or drawing) improves capture of conceptual content while listening to a lecture. Note-taking on a laptop tends to be verbatim. Writing long hand involves a synthesis of concepts through the “short hand” demanded by time constraints.* Using a pen/pencil and a notebook opens the opportunity for a range of intelligences—linguistic, visual-spatial (by doodling or drawing) and kinesthetic (physically writing/drawing).

Many of us feel uncomfortable “doodling” or sketching our ideas. Use your notebook as a private place to experiment with recording ideas visually. Sketching advocate, Mike Rohde, writes: “When you feel inadequate in your sketching, pause and reconsider your perspective. Don’t worry how well you draw. Instead, think of your sketching as visual thinking, which works regardless of your drawing quality. Ugly gets the job done just fine.”**

In his article “The cognitive benefits of doodling,” Steven Heller writes, “While drawing is definitely the artist’s stock and trade, everyone can make doodles, bypassing the kind of refinement demanded of the artist. Drawing, even in a primitive way, often triggers insights and discoveries that aren’t possible through words alone.”***

Mind mapping offers a method of recording ideas and could easily include doodles/sketches. I’ve found mind mapping to be a productive method of accessing my knowledge of a topic and visualizing links and relationships between sub-topics. Developed by Tony Buzan, mind mapping offers a simple way to generate and record thoughts and connections. You can embellish links between elements and practice sketching colourful bubbles around sub-topics. Alternatively, you could use sketches instead of words for your topics. Although mind mapping software exists, using paper and pen/pencil offers a vastly more satisfying result for me.

You’ll find many examples of ways people use their notebooks. Shaunta Grimes writes about her notebook (sometimes called a “Commonplace Book”) in “A new (to me) concept for keeping a notebook.” Trent Hamm also describes the benefits of his note book in “How to use a simple pocket notebook to improve your life.”
Joel Johnson has advice for “How to buy a paper notebook that brings you joy.”
Becky Kane wrote about “The productive benefits of journaling (plus 11 ideas for making the habit stick).”

The value of a notebook can’t really be appreciated until you experiment with it.  If you don’t use one now, I hope you’ll try it.

* A. Van der Meer & F. Van der Weel (2017). Only Three Fingers Write, But the Whole Brain Works: A High-density EEG Study Showing Advantages of Drawing Over Typing for Learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(706). Retrieved August 2, 2018, from

** M. Rohde (January 25, 2011). Sketching: The Visual Thinking Power Tool. A List Apart, (322). Retrieved August 3, 2018, from

*** S. Heller (July 9, 2015). The Cognitive Benefits of Doodling. The Atlantic. Retrieved August 3, 2018, from