Think paper

David Wagner

Thinking using a computer is hard. First, a computer is full of distractions, but let’s say we can eliminate those. Second, using the conventional input such as mouse and a keyboard, anything more complex than a character or a mouse click is difficult to communicate to the computer. Where’s the button for my latest vague idea? Or where should I click to record an abstract concept?

As an experiment, let’s say you’re learning Math. Try recording digitally Pythagoras’s famous formula using the device you’re reading this post at:

$$ a^2 + b^2 = c^2 $$

Was it easy? In case you haven’t reached for your sleek tablet, opened your cloud-based note taking app which applies instant handwriting recognition and provides search functionality on Wolfram Alpha you may continue reading. But let’s say you type in the equation somehow. How do you attach a visual representation to the theorem? Maybe you can even jot down a simple proof? Can you represent your thought process as you’re working through all this?

Since at least 1968 human-machine interface designers want to increase the value created by an intellectual worker provided with a screen, a keyboard and a mouse. They actually did a pretty good job. Great digital tools help us to make beautifully typeset documents, videos, music and many more. In general, computers helps us enormously in doing, but I believe they inhibit us in thinking. Most of our thinking involve figurative or imagery terms and these representations of thought are very difficult to capture digitally. The way we interface with digital tools is simply too slow for doing fast iterations on a new vague idea that was just born in our head.

Imagine you are working on a chart for your next presentation. Take a pen and a piece of paper and in only a couple of minutes you can record five different versions your idea of that figure. You discard three because you can see immediately that they don’t communicate what you wish to express. In the next minute you realize that the remaining two versions could be combined into a completely new one you hadn’t considered before! In less then five minutes the sixth version of your graph must be something solid. Maybe not perfect, but it’s worth transforming your sketch into a digital figure. If you skip the initial paper sketches, how far do you get in PowerPoint in five minutes? I’m usually browsing on a support forum trying to figure out how to do a certain operation. If I’m lucky I get fancy bar chart in half an hour. I don’t like it, but I’m already out of ideas how to make it better.

When we find, for example, an influential talk on YouTube with meticulously prepared slides, what we see is the linear, condensed end result of a very personal, mostly non-linear thinking process. What we tend to forget is that creating is exactly that process and not the act of typing the next slide in PowerPoint.

I believe that in spite of the tremendous success of digitalization the thinking is still better done offline, with pen and paper. I find that these simple tools allow me to record and process my ideas the fastest. I cannot show off beautifully decorated Moleskin notebooks with charts and diagrams. I mainly scribble, draw boxes and potato-shaped thingies then I connect them with lines.

If you think for a living, think paper. Don’t stare at your big computer screens and try to come up with something smart by pressing some keys and clicking around. Get a piece of paper and record your thoughts with a pen. Draw, write, doodle. Give your ideas a structure on paper first then use digital tools after some initial iterations and reflection.