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Writing things down improves your memory

An old proverb claims, “The shortest pencil is longer than the longest memory.”

And those of us still using paper planners can rest assured we are making the right decision, according to information contained on an article in the October 11, 2017 issue of Fast Company. The article references studies showing that taking notes by longhand helps you remember important meeting points better than tapping out notes on your laptop or smartphone. This could be a particular advantage for us older folks since most of us lose memory power as we age. It might also explain why some people are switching from smartphones to paper planners for their everyday planning activities.

We tend to understand and retain information better when we read from a hardcopy book as opposed to a digital version as well. In a study conducted by Anne Mangen, PhD, a professor at the Reading Center at the University of Stavanger, Norway, the researcher gave participants the same 28-page mystery story to read either on an Amazon Kindle or in print format. “We found that those who had read the print pocketbook gave more correct responses to questions having to do with time, temporality, and chronology than those who had read on a Kindle,” Mangen claimed. “And when participants were asked to sort 14 events in the correct order, those who had read on paper were better at this than those who had read on the Kindle.”

Writing down your “to do” list frees up working memory, imprints the items in your mind, allows time to evaluate their importance, and provides a motivational sense of accomplishment as you cross off each item.

People may think they are better at comprehending information when they read it on a digital screen because they can read much faster than those reading the text in paper format. But results of the studies show that the paper groups outperformed the digital groups on memory recall and comprehension of the text.

Mikael Cho, cofounder of Crew, claimed that “the separation from the digital space (where I do most of my work) to the physical, helped me feel less overwhelmed.”

The Fast Company article was quick to point out that this doesn’t mean you should start printing your emails in order to read them. Brief snippets of text don’t seem to make any difference.

A paper planner is a great tool for keeping more of your memories intact and slowing down the perceived passage of time. Not only does the act of writing in the appointments and scheduling the important projects and tasks help transfer them to your long-term memory, reviewing those pages after the fact helps solidify them in your  memory. Research shows that thinking or talking about an event immediately after it occurs enhances memory for the event. That’s why it’s so important for a witness to recall information as soon as possible after a crime.

The greatest loss of memory is in the first hour or so of the event. By reviewing it in spaced intervals, you are fixing it in your memory. You want as much of the present as possible to be retained so you will recall it in the future. I schedule every significant event in my time planner, even after the fact. In other words when we spontaneously drop into a restaurant or go to a movie or visit friends, I write the details of that event in my planner when I get home. If it’s a restaurant, I take out the receipt and copy the name, address, and telephone number into that block of time, including the names of the people we might have been with at the time. It was unscheduled time; but it becomes scheduled after the fact.

By reviewing my planner, I am in effect reviewing my life. And I can readily justify this strange habit by the number of times I have retrieved phone numbers of great restaurants we wanted to revisit or to confirm the name of the movie we saw three weeks earlier or to get the name of our friend’s cousin who attended the dinner.

The pen is not only mightier than the sword, it’s a lot easier to carry with you – and does a better job of writing.

 

 

 

 

 

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How to overcome writer’s block

What about writer’s block that you hear so much about?  Well if you know what you have to say, you won’t have writer’s block.  Some writers spend more time staring at a blank computer screen than they spend writing.  Others may freeze after a paragraph or two.  What some people call writer’s block is usually a lack of planning.

Studies show that professional writers spend 40% of their time planning, 25% writing, and 35% editing. If you plan – if you know what you want to say before you start – there is less chance that you will have writer’s block.  Start the article in your mind as you go for your morning walk, take a shower or travel to work.  It’s a similar process to rehearsing a speech or a presentation. That’s the advantage of my daily walk to the coffee shop. The article is almost written in my mind by the time I get there.

If you are still afraid of getting writer’s block, there is another technique that you could try. Before you start writing, have an outline of the article in front of you along with the materials you have accumulated for that article. That’s a common procedure for writing a book, so you could just do it on a smaller scale.

Minimize the opportunity for interruptions.  Have all your working tools in place before you start.  Pick a quiet place to work if possible.  Engage the voice mail.  Close the door if you have one.  Turn of your smartphone or put it on airplane mode.  Ignore e-mail.  Tell yourself it’s only for an hour or two.  Then stick to the task at hand.

Don’t stop to proofread or edit until you have finished the article.  Stopping to edit after every sentence or two is a form of procrastination.  Maintain the momentum once you start.  Scheduling shorter sessions of one or two hours usually result in fewer delays.  Few people can retain a high level of concentration without a break for more than an hour or two.  This could change once you are engrossed in your work but most of us have jobs besides writing and cannot afford marathon sessions anyway.

If you come to a standstill, switch to another writing project for ten minutes or so. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov said he always had a number of projects going at one time. When he could no longer stand what he was doing, he simply switched to something else. He never stopped. In fact he wrote 460 books.

You might take a brief walk around your desk or table to do a few stretches.  If you just can’t get started again, write anything to start the flow as I described earlier.  Once you start writing, the creative juices will flow and you can edit out any superfluous material later.  Don’t wait for creativity to reveal itself.  If you stare at the computer screen, it will simply stare back at you.

When your time is up and you must stop, write one more sentence but don’t finish it, except in your head.  Reading that partial sentence and finishing it at the next session will help pick up your train of thought and build momentum faster than starting from scratch.  The best way to avoid writer’s block is to keep writing.

Note: The above article was excerpted from my eBook, How to write articles for self-promotion, published by Bookboon.com.

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Creativity and organization are not incompatible.

In case you haven’t read my last couple of blog posts, I have been discussing how some books, articles and other literature have been claiming that messiness aids creativity, while others claim the opposite.

Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen, authors of YOU: On a Diet, claim that visual clutter slows down the brain. That’s why clusters of road signs double the chances of missing the one you’re looking for. It also explains why website designers aim for simplicity.

As we read more about the workings of our brain, we also learn even more about the importance of getting organized. For example, according to neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, author of The overflowing brain, the more items on your desk, the greater the demand on your attention. And mental clutter is a suspect in the cause of age-related memory losses. Clearing clutter from your desk, office and home and leaving more wide open spaces also helps to clear your mind so it will be more productive.

There is a seemingly opposing view that mess is great for generating ideas, and many people (including a successful TV personality and producer) feel they are successful because of their messy environment.

I take the middle ground, and mentioned in my previous articles how professional organizer Clare Kumar had referred to “process mess,” an acceptable temporary mess, generated by the nature of the work itself. The accompanying photo shows a view of my office before I started work in the morning. (The photo last week showed it during the writing process.) I admitted that I do get ideas during the messier writing process; but when it comes to the large part of my time involving administrative work, an organized environment wins hands down.

I am a confirmed neatnik. (I have an almost irresistible urge to straighten pictures on the walls of someone else’s home when I am an invited guest.) Before I start writing, my materials are organized on and around my desk. Articles on the topic previously ripped from magazines, notes I have written to myself on the topic in the past, seminar notes on the topic, etc. are stored vertically in manila folders to my left. Books on the topic are within reach in an accordion bookcase on to the back of my desk (having been removed from my library of books in advance.) Electronic Kindle books on the topic are readily accessible on both my laptop and iPad, and articles, tweets and other items that I have written in the past are filed in electronic folders on my desktop. Everything is neat and tidy and ready to go – as depicted in both this week’s photo and the one posted two weeks ago.

But once the writing process is underway, the neatness transforms into “organized mess” or “process mess,” which sometimes may slip into the “disorganized mess” category; but not often, since I usually write for only 90 minutes at a time. I described this stage of my writing process last week.

If you want to have a working environment that is always supportive of creativity, try merging it more with nature. Richard Louv, in his book, The nature principle, claims that reconnecting to nature opens new doors to creativity, and that “creative people are often aware of being drawn to the outdoors for refreshment and ideas.” He mentioned that creative people like Albert Einstein and philosopher Kurt Godel used to take walks in the woods every single day at Princeton campus.

Louv also quotes Hilary Mantel, 2009 winner of the Booker Prize, as saying “I always work outside, if I can. It’s important to grab the instant thought.”

Florence Williams, in her 2017 book, The nature fix, adds more examples of creative people who believed in walking outdoors while thinking, such as Aristotle, Darwin, Tesla, Teddy Roosevelt and Beethoven. Williams laments that we’re losing our connection to nature

In choosing your office and decor, you should not overlook indoor plants and greenery, window views of nature, and even paintings of flowers and landscapes. The more we gravitate toward the cities and hole up in our offices, the more we withdraw from nature and its largely unrecognized or unappreciated benefits.

Studies have shown that the presence of potted plants, for example, improves not only creativity, but productivity, performance and learning ability as well. In the case of schools, the presence of plants improved scores in mathematics spelling and science between 10% and 14%.

So it would appear that walking, thinking and working outdoors would be the first choice for generating ideas, and if you can’t do your creating outdoors, bring as much as possible of nature into your work area – even if it is just painting the walls green, the color most associated with creativity.

In my eBook, How work environment impacts productivity, published by Bookboon.com, I relate some personal experiences with working environments. One of my most productive routines is to take a 15 or 20 minute nature walk, ending up at a coffee shop where I write the article dreamed up along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

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Creativity is all in your mind

Most of the articles associating a messy environment with creativity (mentioned in my last blog article) referred to the ping-pong study where participants were asked to write down as many uses as possible for ping-pong balls in a given time frame. Those participants in a messy room came up with the same number of ideas as those in a tidy room; but the ideas were more creative.

I assume this works because in a cluttered environment there are more things to associate with the ping-pong balls. This was mentioned in my e-book, Creativity in action, published by Bookboon.com. In creativity seminars, I have frequently used the old “How many uses can you think of for a toothpick?” exercise. If this question had been asked when I was in my “process mess” mode (see photo), I would probably have come up with uses such as:

  • To use as a spike on which to skewer reminder notes, etc.
  • To use as a writing instrument by splitting the end and dipping it in ink.
  • To use as a shim to sturdy a wobbly printer or desk leg.
  • To chew on – or to break into tiny pieces – when you feel stressed.
  • To separate stacks of papers.
  • To use as bookmarks to allow quick access to pages you want to refer to later.
  • To clean between the keys of your laptop.
  • To stir your coffee.
  • To scratch an itch, and so on.

You can see that the above list of ideas were generated, either consciously or unconsciously, by associating the toothpick with items on my desk or activities I was working on at the time. But if you have a vivid imagination, you could possibly come up with just as many or even more creative ideas while working in an organized environment.

In your mind you can be as messy as you like for as long as you like, and I frequently have brainstorming sessions with myself when my supply of new tweets, time tips, articles etc. start getting low. I don’t want to be writing in a panic at the last minute -although this happens occasionally when life has other plans.

What ideas did I actually get during my first few writing sessions while working on my stress book? Well, for one thing, while looking through the book Performing under pressure, I had the idea for another book on “staying on top of your job,” since getting behind in your work could create a lot of pressure on you.

I also got a few ideas for tweets. For example, the fact that some people are creative in a messy environment and others in an organized one, gave me the idea “Creativity is all in your mind.” I might be able to do something with that one – perhaps even as a title for this article. I was also reminded that I should revise and reissue my old stress resistance quiz.

I’m sure I’ll get more ideas as I continue writing my book. It always happens. And I’ll be sure to jot them down at the time so I don’t forget them – and continue with my writing. I use our Daily Priority Pad (available at our website) to do this. It was actually designed by my son Jason, who found he needed something to use in tandem with his iPhone.

It is ideal for my writing sessions since I can quickly jot down things I need to do, ideas for the future, people to call – and there’s even a “Back Burner” section for future book ideas or future plans. I don’t let ideas, creative or otherwise, distract me from my writing if at all possible. I even put my iPhone on airplane mode while I’m writing.

I’m not sure if you’re really interested; but in my next blog articles I will describe how I collect and store all the reference materials that I use in my writing and perhaps a few ideas on writing that have proven useful – and of course a little more on this creativity debate. When it comes to keeping information,  people may label me a pack rat; but it has helped generate 23 e-books, two paperback books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of tweets in the last six-years, not to mention material used in my newsletters, seminar notes and PowerPoint presentations.

Everyone has their own method of writing. There is no one best way. But I do agree with professional organizer Clare Kumar when she claims that “process mess” is natural occurrence, and not something that should label you as a messy.

Life is good. And full of ideas waiting to be harvested.