A pen and a sheet of paper are simple utilities; but there lies vast
and sheer power in them that I was not aware of. Up until now. So
what can they be used for that one might possibly not realize?
Short answer: serializing the stream of consciousness.
Yes, it’s simple, and you may laugh at me now. I myself am a little
amazed why I haven’t noticed this before. But this answer lends
itself to another question: what good is this serialization, and what
exactly do I mean by it, anyway? And the answer to that is a little
longer. So here goes.
I’m one of the people who tend to have problems with concentrating
when thinking, especially when thinking hard. This is not to say that
I am not capable of thinking hard: I am, but doing so requires a level
of concentration that is tricky for me to exert for a prolonged
period. (Unless, of course, I am in the state of absolute
fascination, where this is taken care of subconsciously. But that’s
another story.) More often than not, a tough problem requiring a
significant amount of work just has to be dealt with. And then things
start to distract attention. There is an itch to scratch, thoughts
are shreds, each one pertaining to a tiny bit of the problem, but
intertwined with hundreds of other bits of other problems, forming a
dense, tangled web, hard to navigate over, and jumping fast from one
to another, it becomes more and more unclear what’s next.
So what can one do? One way is to grab a writing device and just
start writing. Running text is linear in nature, so you end up
traversing the thought graph depth-first and writing down each thought
as you traverse its node. And what’s more, translating ideas to
written language slows you down, which is a Good Thing because it
makes you see your way through the graph more consciously. It might
take you longer to walk from point A to point B than to drive there by
car, but definitely you will see more of the landscape as you go.
Arriving at the final destination, or simply putting down the pen
because enough thoughts have been collected and serialized (there’s
never really any end of the stream), makes you end up with a
half-product: an unsmithed lump of ore out of which you can forge
But why a pen and paper, as opposed to, say, a text editor? I think
any writing utensil would work to some extent, but for me this seems
to be the best option, for several reasons. First of all, I can type
on the keyboard much faster than I can write legibly by hand, so this
further slows down the pace (which is a Good Thing as we have observed
Second, there is something magical in handwriting which a text editor
will never be able to achieve: it’s hard to describe. But the net
effect is a very evident focus on Here and Now, the pen moving across
the paper, the sheet filling up with more and more lines of script.
This environment is naturally single-tasked: no Alt-Tab to press to
switch to another terminal, no blinking icon of an instant-messaging
program (unless a phone happens to ring). This causes synergy with
the concentration caused by serializing thoughts.
If you have never tried this approach, feel free to do so. Although I
cannot guarantee it will work for you, it certainly does work for me.