Journaling for learning and thinking

1. My method

I’ve been trying out journaling as a method for both learning and clarifying my thoughts. That is, I’ve been using my diary to (1) write about whatever I’ve read recently, and (2) think through my own ideas or questions. 

For example, I feel like I generally don’t retain much of what I read in the news or in nonfiction books. So in my diary, I’ve been writing summaries of any news articles and book chapters I’ve read recently, and any other avenues for future research or thinking that they suggest. My ideas and questions are usually practical, e.g. problems I’ve been having that I might be able to do something about, so I also use my diary to reflect on those.

The important insight, I think, is that the exercise of writing is in itself useful for learning and thinking, even if nothing happens to the finished product. I used to keep reading summaries in Zotero, and I was interested in trying out the Zettelkasten method in Obsidian. But if it’s just about the exercise, then I can just keep my reading notes chronologically rather than in some logical system like that. And if it’s about the exercise, then it makes sense to go through the process of working out ideas in writing even if the ultimate goal is just to decide, say, what time I should set my alarm for.

Also, I’m doing this analog: I keep my diary in a Moleskine notebook, and I capture the ideas or questions that occur to me on a blank index card. I find it’s a nice break from the distraction machine, and if I don’t really care about referring to the writing once it’s over, then there’s no need to store it digitally.

2. Why does writing help learning and thinking?

Why does writing, just as an exercise, help learning and thinking? Learning, research suggests, often needs to be active: you need to make the effort of retrieving material from memory in order to store it in your long-term memory, and you need to make yourself understand it by putting it in your own words and relating it to what you already know. The exercise of writing about something is a good way to do those things. In addition, because it’s active, I find it gives me a feeling of ownership over the topic, and I feel empowered to learn more about it.

I think the usefulness of writing for thinking has to do with the fact that it makes explicit ideas and reasoning that are otherwise kept implicit in our heads (probably because of how few things we’re able to keep in short-term memory at a given time). As a character in Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” observes, writing enables you to

grasp your thoughts like bricks in your hands and push them into different arrangements. Writing let you look at your thoughts in a way you couldn’t if you were just talking, and having seen them, you could improve them, making them stronger and more elaborate.

Another reason is that writing can be useful for thinking is that it can give you distance from your thoughts (by literally moving them from your head to the page), and this easier to avoid biases that prevent you from evaluating your own thoughts in the same way that you would those of someone else. For example, I’ve found that writing has helped me to spot and detach myself from some negative self-talk.

3. But why not keep permanent notes?

Now, one might ask: even if the exercise of writing is in itself useful for learning and thinking, why not also use the products—i.e., store them as permanent notes in some logically organized system, so that I’ll more easily be able to refer back to them later? I’m not against making permanent notes, but I have two reservations. 

First, because the exercise itself is the primary purpose of this method, in many cases the writing will be stream-of-consciousness and therefore not the same as what a good permanent note would look like. So whether or not making permanent notes is worthwhile, I think that wouldn’t be a matter of saving and organizing your journaling notes, but would in fact just be a different activity.

Second, if you’re going to make permanent notes, then that means you have to think about what your system should be, and whether a particular note is worth adding or would just create clutter. Knowing that you don’t have to do anything with your writing gives you the freedom to write more.

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