5 Surprising Ways Writing Makes Your Life Better

Want to have a clearer head, a more engaged workday, and get wiser faster? Then you might want to write this down.

What are we "putting down" when we "put it down on paper": a current of thought, a torrent of emotions, the first incisions of a decision? Flannery O'Connor said that she writes in order to discover what she knows. And as research into writing shows, the act of tracing your thoughts across a page can make you more productive, more emotionally aware, and a less irrational decision maker.

Here's why.

1. Writing clears the clutter from your mind

Getting Things Done author and TED speaker David Allen emphasizes that your mind is for processing, not for storage. Storage of information, after all, can be outsourced in any number of ways, including writing down your to-do list on a pad of paper. The insight underlying this is that attention is a finite resource, one that gets depleted over the course of a day. So if you're walking around thinking about what you need to do next--rather than thinking about how you're getting to get it done--you're misspending your neurotransmitters.

2. Writing lets you make a bank of knowledge

Productive people take better notes: if somebody is dropping knowledge on you, writing down what they say allows you to commit your attention to next insight--rather than trying to remember the last one. Like the Chinese proverb says, you can trust the faintest of ink more than the strongest of memories.

As you take more and more notes on awesome things said and read, you can amass an awesome bank of knowledge. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.

3. Writing helps you see your own growth

Journaling in particular helps you see how you have grown. Harvard Business School research director Teresa Amabile has discovered that people feel more engaged, more productive, and have a greater sense of meaning in their work when they record even the most miniscule of accomplishments within their days. She calls this the Progress Principle: the more you're aware of your progress, the more involved you'll feel in making it continue to grow--another reason to make a ritual of writing about what's happened.

4. Writing helps you understand your life

University of Texas psychologist James W. Pennebaker has found that writing about their lives helps people to organize their thoughts and find meaning in their traumatic experiences--from people diagnosed with HIV to Vietnam veterans. This is crucial, since the more meaning you find in your difficulties, research shows, the more resilient you'll be in over-coming them, which reminds us of how the happiest people often have the hardest jobs.

5. Writing helps you become more wise

The last reason to write about life: it helps you study your emotions, which makes you wiser, faster.

"What we construct as wisdom over time is actually the result of cultivating that knowledge of how our emotions behaved," says USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, "and what we learn from them."

This reinforces Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman's recommended first step for making better decisions: buy a notebook.

Hat tip: Lifehack

[Image: Flickr user Madzia Bryll]

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10 Comments

  • LashersList.com

    I arrived at the same conclusion myself. I write a monthly blog, and it is in my notes for an article about this in my January email.

  • writerrobynlarue

    Morning pages help my reduce my brain clutter a lot, and I can testify that writing to process a traumatic event really works. Good points. :)

  • Diana Quartey

    Drake, this was a great article. Since I've started my blog I have seen almost overnight the detail about my life and others that I now pay even more attention to. So you are right, you become wiser in the process of growth and reflection.

  • Carole Hayes

    Lots of great points here, and I agree with all of them except for the part about taking notes:

    "if somebody is dropping knowledge on you, writing down what they say allows you to commit your attention to next insight--rather than trying to remember the last one"

    I have never—and I do mean NEVER—been able to write and listen at the same time; if I'm writing down what you've just said, I guarantee that I'm missing the thing you're saying now. (And I know I'm not alone in this.)

    Also, there's the part where even if I COULD make my hand keep up with my ears it would end up delaying my understanding of the material: the way I remember without writing things down is by finding things I ALREADY know to attach the new information to— at this point I have decades of experience at attaching new info to old in my brain, and I do it very quickly and very well—which means that I UNDERSTAND the new information more quickly because I AM attaching it to things I already understand. (Also, when I need to remember the new stuff I won't have to look it up somewhere.)

    That said, if there are dates and times for appointments and things, I'll usually ask for the date/time again at the end, so I CAN write it down—I just can't write it if it's given in the middle of a discussion/lecture, because then I'll miss whatever comes after....

  • kristymom

    I am the opposite. If I write it down, it exists. I am an auditory/tactile processor, so if I write while I listen, I will be able to recall the information easily, and in detail. I do type and write faster than most people talk, so while it may look messy, I understand the notes I took!

  • Barbara Morgan

    I heard of some Chinese students who in lectures divided themselves into two groups. The first group just listened and the second took notes. They then combined this information after the lecture.

  • Kunle Apata

    You are right. I am Secretary to my firm. I can't be writing and listen to what you are saying while digest-write what you've just said...

  • Kevin Ferguson

    Great article. Really like #4 about resiliency and why happiest people have the hardest jobs.