While we're waiting for those transformative tools for thought to arrive, we could make breakthroughs with pencil and paper in the meantime

Thinking on paper- in this post I want to show how much it has to offer, even in the 21st century.

Thinking on paper, thinking by writing has been used over the centuries, and it is still a uniquely powerful method to clarify our thinking, to get an overview, to better understand obstacles, to generate ideas and to find solutions to problems. We can start thinking on paper now, and begin a steady process of co-evolution and growth with our personal practices of using pencil and paper. There is no need to wait for that flashy new app feature to be implemented, we just adapt and improve how we think and write.

The questions and ideas presented here are nothing more but a collection of my personal favourites, and I’m sure that some of them will seem alien to some readers. I’m fine with that. However, I would be thrilled to read about your ideas, or why you think a question is irrelevant, and what questions are more relevant to you. Let’s start.

How can we represent thoughts on paper?

  • We can use text, diagrams and math terms, and sketches, doodles, symbols, several alphabets, lines, arrows, textmarkers - all this within the natural integration of brain, hand and eyes and with almost no technical friction and no distractions from the din of the internet.
  • We can arrange thoughts in convential linear text, outlined text, conventional mind maps, multi-mind maps with several smallish on a sheet of paper.

How can we reflect?

  • We can write down where we are stuck, describe obstacles and dissect problems. We can write down why things work or don’t work. - This habit of dealing with obstacles directly in writing seems to me one of the most useful parts of thinking on paper.

How can we form manageable units of thinking?

  • We can divide a sheet of paper into smaller boxes and develop our thoughts by filling box after box. Or we can make a mind map and use the main branches as units of thinking.
  • This may seem limiting and artificial at first, but it can help to structure and to scaffold progressive, productive thinking processes.

How can we find the right focus for the next unit of thinking?

  • We can use thinking tools that propel the thinking process forward - what is the most promising point here? What is the most inconvenient obstacle? How could we make progress in this situation?

How can we work coherently on a topic?

  • We can mark open issues and loose ends with a checkbox, and do follow-up work later.
  • We can summarize the relevant findings from our units of thinking into one coherent essay.

How can we use thinking tools?

  • We can assemble a modular collection of thinking tools, with tools for asking questions, stimuli for generating ideas, helpful interventions from a coach or a mentor or prompts for formulating criticism.
  • I find it very useful to have such a collection accessible from my work desk with one glance.

How can we generate ideas?

  • We can divide a sheet into 3x3 boxes, use one inspiring stimulus in each box and capture the ideas sparked off. There are of course several variations of this basic mechanism.

I’m well aware that I’ve presented very similar collections of ideas on this forum before - so why bring it up again? I’m still baffled by the observation that there is so little discussion about how writing practices can support, improve and even transform thinking processes.