How to Think Better

Imagine if you could take a pill that would double your intelligence. What would that feel like?

You’d be able to keep more thoughts in your head. You could draw new connections between ideas. You could solve problems you’ve been stuck on for years.

Such a pill may not exist, but there already is a cognitive enhancing tool, and it doesn’t require brain-altering drugs.

Writing to Think Better

Writing your thoughts is the key to better thinking.

Cognitive scientists believe that working memory is one of the major components of intelligence. Working memory is like the RAM for your mind. It consists of all the things you’re keeping in mind simultaneously.

A common test of working memory is the n-back task. In this test, experimenters will repeat a string of digits and then, at a random point, ask you to recall the input from n steps previously.

How to Improve Your Thinking

This test is hard because the numbers you need to repeat back will keep changing. You need to hold all the current numbers in your head, without forgetting any of them.

People who can hold more numbers in their heads, have higher working memories and are often more intelligent generally. Being able to keep more things in mind at the same time is a big part of what makes some people smarter than others.

Now consider that, if one change to the test were made, performance would become almost perfect, even if the n-back test was asking for the last one hundred or ten thousand digits. That change? Allowing participants to write down the numbers as they hear them. Now reciting off huge lists of numbers is trivial, no matter the length.

Paper as an Extension of Your Mind

While writing may not literally increase your working memory, many cognitive scientists now believe that such external representations may form important parts of our cognition. This externalized cognition extends the space of thinking and literally makes us smarter, even if our brains are just the same as before.

Just as writing helps with numerical and mnemonic tasks, it can help you think more clearly about your life problems as well.

First, by jotting down your thoughts on paper, you can hold more ideas than you could in your limited working memory. This means you can more easily work through thoughts that have several parts which are difficult to keep in mind simultaneously.

Second, writing allows editing. If I write down an idea, then later notice a contradiction further down the page, I can go back and edit it. Editing mentally quickly becomes exhausting as, like in the n-back task, the old information interferes with the new.

Third, writing allows for longer thoughts. Have you ever had a conversation where, as you were listening, you forgot the point you were eager to make? Ideas bubble up and pop all the time in our minds, it’s only with writing that you can capture it.

How to Start Thinking Better

There’s a few ways you can improving your thinking with writing:

1. Have a written meeting, before your face-to-face one.

Are you going to discuss something with colleagues? Pretend the meeting isn’t happening and that you need to communicate your plans entirely via email. Draft up an email with your thoughts.

It doesn’t matter whether you send the email or not. Having thought through your ideas clearly, you’ll be able to communicate them intelligently when the meeting comes.

2. Vexing problems should start with paper and pen.

Are you struggling with an important problem in life or work? Your first instinct should be to get a piece of paper and start writing it down. Jot down all the elements of the problem, including all your different ideas for a solution.

Many problems which feel overwhelming are suddenly simplified once you write them down.

3. Confusions are cleared up by writing down explanations.

One of my most popular studying tactics was the Feynman Technique. This technique boils down to using writing to make it easier to understand hard problems in math, science and other subjects.

Often, simply the act of writing down an explanation will resolve confusions. This is because the different components of the ideas are too large and numerous to stitch together into a completed understanding. Writing it down solves this capacity constraint and allows you to piece together a completed idea.

Writing Doesn’t Record Your Thoughts, It Is Your Thinking

James Clear, a friend of mine and bestselling author, once told me that he doesn’t write to record his thoughts, but to figure out what he even thinks about a topic.

I feel the same way. Without writing, it isn’t simply that I would have tons of unrecorded ideas, bumping around in my skull, but that those ideas wouldn’t exist. They are created by the act of writing, much more so than they are being recorded.

If you don’t write regularly, the quality of your thinking suffers. Writing gives you access to an external brain, sharpens your ideas and makes your thoughts smarter.

Consider this: Take whichever problem you find most challenging right now. It could be a life problem, relationships, academic or professional. Try writing about it every day for the next thirty days. You’ll be surprised at how many difficulties disappear once you’re able to write about it.

What is Productivity Guilt? (And How Can You Prevent It?)

You should really exercise four times per week. Not just jogging though, high-intensity interval training. And do intermittent fasting. And drink two gallons of water a day. Don’t forget to meditate.

If you’re not waking up at 4am, you’re missing the most productive hours of the day. Did you watch some television? You could have been using that time for reading books. Not just popular books and novels though. You should be reading classics from Seneca, Aurelius and Laozi.

Productivity guilt is this. It’s the constant nagging feeling that you should be doing more. And if you’re not doing everything, then you’re a lazy slacker who will never reach your goals.

What Causes Productivity Guilt?

Blogs like this one are probably a big contributor to productivity guilt. I’m sorry.

Unfortunately, this is a side-effect of offering advice and suggestions. For some people, the suggestions will be helpful in solving their problems. For others, they will be too much and just make them feel guilty. It’s hard as a writer to have the former without the latter.

Hardcore advice is inspiring to some. Even easy suggestions can be guilt-inducing for others. There’s no way to only do one without the other.

How to Prevent the Guilt

Luckily, you have the power to prevent feeling guilty. There are three steps to help avoid the productivity guilt you may feel:

1. Accept You’ll Always Be Imperfect.

That’s okay. Everyone is. Nobody, including me, does everything perfectly all the time.

I’ve written this blog over thirteen years. There’s over 1200 articles, most of which have some kind of advice or suggestion. Combined, that’s way too much for anyone to do simultaneously, permanently.

I go through phases where my habits evolve. Old ideas I wrote about get replaced with new ones. Not always because the new is better than the old, but because I’m always changing (as will you). If you see, instead, that everything I’ve written about is a static and permanent part of who I am, when you sum it all up, you’ll get to something that’s probably unmanageable as a whole.

Habits: Appearance vs Reality

Of course, I trust not everyone sees it this way. This is simply what one might naively expect if they skimmed my 1200+ articles archives…

2. You Shouldn’t Be Your Ideal Self.

The first step is realizing that perfection isn’t practical. The second step is realizing that it isn’t even desirable.

Usually advice is a direction, not a destination. This means that moving from where you are now, in the direction it points, will probably produce benefits. But taking everything to its logical extreme or conclusion often isn’t actually very good.

Sometimes this can happen by simply stacking a lot of individually good pieces of advice that, if taken too far and too many, can start to have drawbacks. Consider the list of common advice at the start of this article. Each piece, on its own, is probably good. But the sum total of them, even if you could execute them, would leave very little time and energy left in the day for mundane but important things.

Other times, the ideal picture can be bad because while a marginal shift in one direction is helpful, a total shift in that direction is not. Spending less time on social media and communication platforms is probably good. But if you had zero contact, that might start to create more social interference than the productivity it generated.

Costs versus Benefits of Social Media

Social media is just a possible example. Many other vices are probably best in moderation–but moderation is hard.

3. Your Starting Point is Always Here.

The real source of the guilt, however, isn’t because the standards imposed are too unrealistic or even undesirable, but because there’s always a gap between how we see ourselves and how we would like to be.

The right move to make is always one that pushes you a little, but takes where you are as a starting point. That also includes your psychological strengths and weaknesses.

I recently had a Twitter exchange with a few people who have been wanting to learn something new, but keep putting it off. You can see the guilt they feel, that they haven’t been able to make progress.

But this is the wrong way to look at it. Yes, it would be nice if we were perfect beings with infinite discipline, time, freedom, resources and intelligence. But we’re not. We’re always starting as flawed people, trying to make things a little better for ourselves.

The question is never, “What should I do, ideally, to solve this problem?” Instead it’s always, “How could I do things a little differently than last time for a little better results?”

Don't Compare Your Progress to Others

Productivity is Good, Productivity Guilt is Bad

Trying to improve ourselves is a good thing. But too much guilt doesn’t help you do that. If you’ve been feeling a lot of guilt lately, here’s a few things you can do:

  1. Pick a few goals to work on (maybe only one) and tell yourself it’s okay to not work on other things.
  2. Stop comparing yourself to other people. Those people you admire also have flaws they don’t reveal. Work on improving yourself, not feeling guilty because you don’t see yourself reaching somebody elses standards.
  3. Separate the nice-to-have from the essential. Most advice is nice-to-have—it helps, but only a little. If you can focus on the essential things that matter for your few goals, then you can stop feeling guilty about everything else.

Most of all, stop telling yourself the guilt is good for you. Guilt does motivate, but it does so at high costs and with a lot of side-effects. You may not choose how you feel, but you can’t possibly adjust it if you think that non-stop guilt about not doing enough is somehow an ideal state. Aim to be slow and patient instead, and you’ll get most of the results with a lot less of the anxiety.