Life Hacks

5 reasons to use writing for clearer thinking

“I don’t know what I think until I write it down”

Joan Didion

There are many benefits to writing, whether it is in a blog or in a diary.

Writing helps you process events and emotions in a healthy way.  It also improves your ability to communicate over time.

For me though, one of the most powerful benefits is that it forces you to articulate your thinking.

The quote above is attributed to Joan Didion, a journalist for Vogue in the 60s.  There are many other highly successful people, including Warren Buffett,  that attribute their wisdom to the act and process of writing.

Here then are 5 reasons that you too should consider writing more often and using it as a tool to improve your thinking.

1. Writing allows you to be truthful with yourself

“Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling others the truth”

Spencer Johnson

On almost all major issues or questions, we have an initial gut instinct answer.

Sometimes, it is something that we have read somewhere else.  Sometimes, it is what we want to answer to be because of our own bias.  Sometimes, it is just the answer we land on because of the mood we are in at the time.

If we were asked to substantiate why we think what we do, we may well be able to come up with some reasons why.  Many of us are intelligent enough to think on our feet and bluff our way through.

The truth is, in this scenario, the reasoning many of us would give to support our view is more likely to be justification than rationale.

To avoid losing face and admitting we were wrong, there is a temptation to focus on outwitting the challenger with flawed justifications rather than truly seeking to understand the reasoning in our initial answer.

Writing allows us to outline, understand and develop our thinking whilst avoiding public scrutiny. It removes any external criticism and allows us to be completely truthful regarding your own arguments.

This is the easiest way to get to the core of what we truly think and why.

2. Using the writing process to challenge assumptions

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

Isaac Asimov

Until you record all of your thoughts on a page and map them out, there are likely to be dark spots.

These dark spots are areas you have not fully considered.

Writing allows you to illuminate these dark spots and the assumptions in them. 

Once illuminated you can test your assumptions properly. 

You can justify or tweak your assumptions and flow this through the rest of your argument.

Writing allows you to challenge your own thinking in the same way that an opponent may challenge you if you were debating them.

Only by going through this process will you understand what the assumptions are and what impact it has on the conclusions that you are drawing.

Challenging these assumptions leads to more robust thinking and conclusions.

3. Develop deeper thinking

Failing to consider second- and third-order consequences is the cause of a lot of painfully bad decisions

Ray Dalio

Good thinking involves looking at the second and third order consequences of action.  

For those not familiar with this term, every action causes a re-action. This would be the first order reaction.  The first order reaction will have its own impact, and this will cause a second order reaction – a “knock on” impact.  A third order reaction will also follow.

Properly developed thinking requires working through these second and third orders. 

This is easy to understand but very hard to do. 

Perhaps you can play mental chess and have the capacity to balance several different threads and layers of argument in your mind.  Good for you.

Unfortunately, holding lots of different information in my mind is too difficult for me.  Fortunately, writing things down allows me to develop the proper depth of thinking required.  

Writing down your line of thinking will allow you to record it. The thinking process can then start again, only this time it is on the second order effects. Rinse and repeat for the third order effects.

This is how you take your thinking to the next level; the second and third order level to be precise.

4. Re-structure your thoughts to be clearer

The only kind of writing is rewriting

Ernst Hemingway

By writing your thoughts down on page, you are given a chance that you would not be afforded if you had to give your thoughts on the spot.

You are given thinking and preparation time. The time to turn the muddled mess of half formed thoughts into a single coherent argument.

Let me tell you about the process of writing and thinking;

Write down thoughts.  Re-draft writing of thoughts.  Delete big sections of thinking that is invalid.  Revise big sections due to in-complete thinking.  Re-order points to be more logical.  Review and edit language.  Review once more.

Only then are you done.

This is the process of developing a proper line of thinking.

It is constantly revising and critically challenging your own work. A big piece of this is re-structuring the thoughts such that it allows a logical, rational and consistent argument to develop.

5. Keep a record

Writing down your thinking and outlining why you have made a decision is an extremely useful record to have.

It is always smart to revisit your thinking process. As time progresses, there are two scenarios you may come up against:

The first scenario is one where the eventual outcome from your thinking and decision will be known.

Imagine you form a line of thinking that Apple stock will increase in price due to a certain factor.  In 12 months you can look back and confirm what has happened to Apple stock. It is fact.

In this situation, you will be able to check the record of your thinking and determine whether your conclusions later turned into reality.  You can look back and mark your own homework. This is actually quite a fun exercise.

The second scenario is where you will never know what the right answer is / was. 

For example, there could be a political debate on a particular issue.  You will never know whether your opinion on a particular policy is right or wrong.

You can however look back after the fact, and determine whether you still believe and understand your line of thinking. 

Perhaps there is new information that has arisen in the course of events. Unless you are actually a politician, changing your mind based on new information or time elapsed is a completely healthy and natural thing.

You should revisit your line of thinking regularly to understand whether you still think the same thing.

General advice

Generally keeping a journal or a diary is a good thing to try.

It can be a very soothing experience. It can enrich your thinking and your ability to communicate.

Like many good things, it is also free and there are no downsides that I can see.

What do you think? Let me know your thoughts on using writing as a hack for better thinking.

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