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Shake Up Your Cognitive Processes with Pen and Paper

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

I coach executives on a variety of professional development exercises and I strongly encourage them to try using a paper and pen. Why? Writing by hand interrupts the daily routine of typing on devices. It spurs a new set of cognitive processes. It encourages creativity and deeper thinking. It encodes critical information in new ways. And it’s definitely a change from the daily routine. According to Ladders Inc., executives spend ~85% of the workweek typing on devices. My executive coaching clients who agree to try coaching exercises with paper and pen are in great company. Creative luminaries like Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote and Stephen King all write longhand for most of their drafts.

What You’ll Learn

  • The science behind the differences between typing and writing

  • Why you should try using paper and pen for some career development exercises

  • The types of professional development exercises that benefit most from writing

  • “Hybrid” approaches if pen and paper really aren’t your thing

  • How to give it a try, and the results you’ll see immediately

Why Do I Encourage Leaders to Try Pen and Paper?

When you spend nearly 90% of your day typing, it’s important to disrupt your usual cognitive processes. If you’ve made a decision to invest in your leadership development, why not go the extra step and give pen and paper a try?

Stepping away from electronic devices in favor of a medium that is more than 6,000 years old is liberating. Writing with a pen and paper enable you to create lists, brainstorms, and mind maps. They are outside the constraints and boundaries of word processing templates. More importantly, a physical notebook isn’t connected to the internet. A fresh sheet of paper and an inky pen won’t notify you about emails, calendar reminders, news alerts, or the cute photos of your sister’s new puppy. It’s like going into airplane mode for a brainstorm session.

I encourage you to pour a glass of wine or a cup of tea or coffee. Get comfortable in a place you like to relax. Add a cozy blanket, your dog or cat, and put your feet up. Now you can focus entirely on executive coaching exercises and professional development. A Forbes article reported that writing by hand “increases neural activity in certain sections of the brain, similar to meditation.” Getting in the zone before spending the time on your journey of self-discovery and professional growth is important!

Which Executive Coaching Exercises Benefit Most from Pen and Paper?

Of course, I don’t discourage my executive coaching clients from ever returning to their devices. Some of the most valuable initial exercises that benefit from this practice are:

  • Developing your value proposition

  • Brainstorming your personal brand

  • Creating your professional narrative

  • Brainstorming your thought leadership story

  • Articulating your leadership style and leadership values

  • Being introspective about a career transition

Each of these exercises are critical foundational pieces. You need to identify, articulate and then communicate them. Doing some of these by hand adds an extra element of introspection. I love to see what themes bubble up and keep appearing. Using blank paper with no lines or margins makes it even easier. You can draw arrows, connect ideas, cross things out, and use fresh sheets of paper as you make connections or create narratives.

You Think and Encode Information Differently When You Write

Don’t just take it from me. Some of the brightest minds in the world who study writing, thinking, cognition and retention have identified two main differences between writing and typing.

1) Writing encourages you to think in an entirely different way.

Typing lends itself to an “autopilot” thought process. This is probably because of the restrictive, repetitive and templatized nature of apps. Claire Bustarret, a specialist in codex manuscripts at Paris’ Maurice Halbwachs Research Center, explains in the Guardian, “Word-processing is a normative, standardized tool. Obviously, you can change the page layout and switch fonts, but you cannot invent a form not foreseen by the software. Paper allows much greater graphic freedom. You can write on either side, keep to set margins or not, superimpose lines or distort them. There is nothing to make you follow a set pattern. [Paper] has three dimensions too, so it can be folded, cut out, stapled or glued.” The physical differences actually encourage you to think differently.

2) Writing improves biological processes so you can remember and retrieve information more effectively.

Writing improves a biological process called “encoding.” This is how we perceive and analyze information and then decide what to store in our long-term memory. Neuropsychologists also credit writing with improving the “generation effect.” This means we are more likely to remember something that we’ve generated ourselves than something we’ve read elsewhere. Mark Murphy reveals in Forbes that writing encourages a double whammy of encoding and generation. This is especially important when you’re using pen and paper to brainstorm your value proposition. You are more likely to remember it and internalize it when you communicate it in your daily interactions.

I Practice What I Preach. I Write Longhand Frequently

I’ve had a long career in Silicon Valley, founding, funding and running software companies. Despite inventing and patenting cutting-edge technology, I use pen and paper for a lot of my work.

What have I written by hand recently?

  • The outline for this blog

  • My multiple software patents

  • The outline, notes, and PowerPoint sketches for my keynote presentations, webinars, and workshops for some of the largest companies in the world

  • My expert contributions to one of the fastest growing tech platforms in the country

  • The drafts of my books

  • Client thank-you notes

  • My grocery and to-do lists

Starting with a pen and paper is very liberating. I use extremely inky fine point markers. (I’m picky about my pens and markers!) I unleash my brain onto paper. I think creatively, laterally, and without restrictions. The process also surfaces surprising connections between some of my work. I have blank paper in front of me and can switch back and forth when ideas pop into my brain. Once I’ve done a critical mass of brainstorming, I move the content to my laptop. This is an efficient process. I rapidly organize and finalize documents on a computer without feeling the pressure to be creative while staring at a blinking cursor. (Side note: Wine also helps with creativity while writing with a pen and paper.)

But Wait! (I Know Your Objections…)

I’ve heard pretty much every possible objection. When I encourage executives to try using a pen and paper, I hear:

  • I’m busy and this is inefficient

  • My handwriting is messy

  • This isn’t my learning style

Of course, I never force anyone to try it. But each of these objections can be met with science and experience. Let’s look at each one.

I’m busy and this is inefficient.

Sure, we can all type faster than we can handwrite. But the end goal is to create fundamentally different content. So, what is the point of typing the usual content quickly? Remember the science: when you handwrite, you are actually thinking in a different way. You’re breaking the cognitive mold of how you usually generate content. You are opening different neural pathways. You are generating new, creative, and important ideas that impact your executive journey. You’ve already made the decision to spend time and resources on this. Spend 30 minutes on one of the exercises – creating your value proposition, personal brand or thought leadership brainstorming – and see what happens. If you hate it or it’s absolutely not for you, no worries.

My handwriting is messy.

If your handwriting is messy, don’t worry. You’re the one who is going to read the results and summarize your brainstorming. Hopefully you can read your own writing. If not, we probably have bigger issues to address.

This isn’t my learning style.

If this isn’t your learning style, excellent! That’s exactly what we’re going for. We’re aiming for cognitive dissonance and challenging the usual ways you think and generate ideas. Being slightly uncomfortable for a short period of time may surface interesting, introspective content. Remember, it’s all about giving it a try.

The Hybrid Approach – Transcription, Text Conversion, And Just Giving it a Try

I coach innovative executives, and many have found hybrid approaches that work well for them. Lately, I’ve been using transcription apps – like – to outline my blogs, so they are more conversational. There are great apps that scan your handwriting and convert it to recognizable text that you can edit in word documents. I’ve recently purchased a Remarkable 2 tablet. I use it for rote brainstorming work and then rapidly convert my handwriting to editable text.

Whatever works best for you, give it a try. I’m not suggesting you give up typing entirely. That would be ridiculous. This is just one approach to shake up your cognitive patterns. It’s a way to access deeper thoughts and insights. It’s exciting to see the results. You see your value proposition and personal narrative emerge, your thought leadership story and personal brand take shape, and you start to articulate your leadership style. Once you see results and feel confident and empowered, writing with a pen and paper becomes just another tool in your toolkit.

Grab a Pen and Give it a Try

Give it a try! Take a few minutes to sit in a quiet place with a nice pen and a fresh sheet of paper. Try any of the exercises I mentioned above. Try the value proposition exercise or start to list areas of your personal brand or thought leadership story. Start by starting. Make a list of the things you bring to the table, and then turn it into a narrative.

The benefits are clear. Move away from spending 90% of your time typing and spend some of your time with a pen and paper. By changing how you create and capture your ideas, you’ll think differently. You’ll remember and embody those thoughts differently. This is especially critical for confidently identifying, articulating and embodying your core value, so you can tackle your greatest career challenges and goals.

I’d love to help you explore the ways you can surface your value proposition, thought leadership story, and leadership narrative. Whether it’s with pen and paper (just for a few exercises!) or not, my executive coaching clients are successful and happy with their results. Contact me today to learn more!

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