Techie geekie widgetry is a wonderful thing – but when it comes to planning, paper is mightier than the screen. Transform your thinking by stepping away from the computer. Here’s why.
1. You focus on the big picture, not the detail
Computers encourage fine-detail thinking, even when you want to stay big-picture. If you’re adding numbers, Excel’s right there to get exact about decimal points. If you want big writing, you specify exactly what point size. If you want to draw, add a margin note, circle something, highlight it, use a picture – whatever you want to do, your steps are logical, left-brain, and detail-oriented. Even when you set your mind to “big picture”, the interface keeps setting it back to detail. Paper is the reverse experience: a heading is “me writing bigger”, a square is lopsided, a circle is swift, a margin-note is a scribble. Everything is automatically rough draft – and that’s what you’re after.
2. You see the big picture – literally
Most people’s screens are the size of one sheet of paper. A massive screen might be two. To see your notes and sources, you either switch between programs or scroll up and down. Twiddling to get two windows side by side is fiddly (see detail, above) and you rarely have enough space to work in both. Paper transforms that. With a good-sized desk and a wall in front of you, you can look at anything from 5 to 30 sheets of paper at a time. If you’re a strong visual thinker, this has a huge extra advantage: you can make the pieces of paper look very different with colours and mindmaps, plus where you stick them up becomes part of your thinking.
3. You keep your thinking flexible
As well as encouraging detail thinking, a computer interface promotes organisation. Great for some stuff – not for planning. You need to get the ideas out and float above them before you can start organising them. On paper, you can throw down a brainstorming circle and shove ideas everywhere. In a Word doc, they’re one underneath each other. On paper, you can add stars and spirals and circles to start connecting nascent categories. In a Word doc, you start moving things into separate lists – which is too soon, when the categories are still just possibilities.
4. You can work in different places
“Whut?!” cry you. ”Haven’t you heard of laptops?!” Yup – but inside your laptop is a place. It’s a virtual environment, but it’s still an environment – and it’s an environment where you do 99% of your fine-detail work and organisation. It’s also a doing environment, as opposed to a thinking environment. To get from a doing to a thinking mindset, you want physical distance from your doing environment. We say “helicopter thinking” and “I need to get some perspective” and “I need to step back” – these are not just metaphors. Physical distance gives you metaphorical distance, from which you can see the whole better. Working on paper allows you to move to a different place (like a coffee shop) and is a different place to your computer.
5. You engage more of your brain
A substantial and growing body of research shows that handwriting gives you a better thinking experience than typing. Whether you’re learning new information, writing, or structuring a composition, handwriting wins every time. Maybe this will change over the years, maybe not, but for now it’s still true. As the University of Washington reported, “Previous research by Berninger’s group showed that transcription predicts composition length and quality in developing writers.” And it taps into something else, which Berninger, the lead researcher, is keen to emphasise: we’re physical beings. Alongside the glittering dancing brilliance of our computer world, we need to hold onto the sensory, tangible substance of our physical world. The shift of our muscles and the feel of what we hold in our hands are part of our thinking.
So next time you want to do some planning, ditch the laptop. Grab a pad of paper, a smooth-writing pen, and a pack of felt-tips. Head to the nearest quiet coffee shop, spread out the tools of your trade, and start thinking.