Here let me read it to you. Best to listen straight off Spotify though, the browser version is buggy.
A message from the distant past
Hi there busy business person, smashing out KPIs on your real-time dashboard, building a team of “rock stars”, being passionate about what you do.
Are you sure you’re doing the right thing here? Why? Where is all this busyness going? What’s the point of it all?
This week, drawing your attention to some powerful, affordable technology for getting your real priorities in order.
I was flying into Sydney last week, the southerly approach over Cronulla. I thought: ah yeah, there’s my friend Chris’s childhood house, 9 Gowrie St. I only visited it once, for his 21st birthday party.
I wondered: how the hell did that address just flash back into my mind, an aeon later?
Then I realised. I’d written it out quite a few times. Party invitations. Letters from university holidays, in a time when there was less to do. Postcards from overseas adventures.
The act of physically writing it out, about a dozen times long ago, had coded that address permanently into my brain. If I close my eyes I can see a picture of it in my nineteen-year-old handwriting.
(It’s much better than my current wretched handwriting, thanks a lot keyboards).
Fire up that ol’ hippocampus
The act of writing something down with pen and paper, rather than a keyboard or even a digital pad, helps you remember. How? It fires up your brain more. From neuroscience research at the University of Tokyo:
“Activation of the hippocampus indicates that analog methods contain richer spatial details that can be recalled and navigated in the mind’s eye.”
Another study, perhaps the best known, is from UCLA’s Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014).
Sorry, not that Oppenheimer, if this was a movie it would run six minutes.
They had similar results, plus an interesting side effect. The paper note takers summarised the ideas, while the keyboardists tended to take words down verbatim. Basically, mindless processing.
Pens are powerful and could make your life better. Obviously people learn and think in different ways but it’s worth testing it yourself. I’ve come back to daily pen work after a few years away, and I realise that break was a mistake.
Your to-do list blocks big ideas
This isn’t a tech-is-bad story. I love being down a rabbit hole of video editing, music production or plain-old word processing for hours. I spend my life on various laptops.
But these are all get-the-job-done technologies, not where you have the original idea. Not the place to get any sense of perspective about where you’re going with all this activity.
A while ago I wrote of the problem with atomic habits: they give you the satisfaction of completing a to-do list. It creates a real middle-management mindset. While others who have the big ideas lead better, more interesting lives.
You will not have the big idea if you’re busy with lists all the time.
I write the blog on a laptop, but writing it is about half the battle. The hardest part, over 250 episodes in, is coming up with the topic. That’s churning through my brain from Tuesday to Sunday, trying to find something I haven’t covered before. It ain’t going to happen on a laptop.
It’s rare to have a big idea or a deep moment of awareness tapping away at a device. There’s too much else lurking to distract you. Haven’t had a genius idea in the first three minutes? Might just quickly tab over to the browser and search for some inspiration, HEY LOOK THE LATEST ON THAT FAMOUS PERSON WHO GOT CAUGHT DOING THAT THING! AND A 25%-OFF DEAL ON THAT ITEM I WAS INTERESTED IN!
You can activate focus mode or whatever but it doesn’t matter. You’re still tapping away, doing the same physical moves you do all day. The moves your reptilian brain associates with spreadsheets, answering emails and generally fucking around online.
The ceremony is important
A good pen has flow. It siphons the ideas direct from your brain. The pen will speak the truth that you dare not say to yourself while you’re immersed in being busy.
The topic has come up a few times lately in chats with people I rate. When they need clarity, or there’s a big decision to make, they lock themselves away with a pen and pad. And wait for the truth to reveal itself. Some of them do it every day and view it as essential to keep things in perspective.
The ceremony side of it is important. I’m superstitious about pens. For my entire advertising life, where my job was to come up with ideas each day, there was only one pen I could use. The black Uni-ball Eye Fine Point. It’s not prestigious, they’re $4 each. Each is a zero-friction ideas machine.
Variations on the same pen are not OK. The micro-point version has a nasty, scratchy feel. You can hear the tortured souls of ideas, their muffled screams trapped inside the pen, unable to escape to the page. It also comes in fucked-up colours like green. I had to use a blue one once in an emergency. Its output killed my soul. Black is the colour of good ideas.
Yes, this is all a figment of my deranged imagination. But those scrawly ideas have generated a lot of things that make me happy, and great deal of money, out of thin air.
Don’t fuck with what works. If you’re sitting down with a pen that’s felt good for previous thinking, and paper that feels nice, that’s a solid headstart for your lazy brain.
I finally give in to a prestige pen
I’d always thought Mont Blanc pens were a pompous affectation for old-money types and Patrick Bateman-y finance guys.
Last year, cleaning up my mum’s place after the flood, I found one my late dad got as a commemorative gift from his beloved motorhome club, with an engraved plaque and a dried-out Rollerball cartridge. He’d hardly used it, having cherished his basic Parker Jotter for forty years.
I figured, why not give it a go for daily thinking sessions? Maybe there would be cosmic guidance from my dad in there.
And there is. It’s nice to have a tangible connection to him. I’m not going to follow all his afterworld tips, but there’s a solid moral compass in that pen.
So I’ll spend half an hour most weekdays just jotting stuff down, thinking onto the page. Whatever’s on my mind. It’s been rebranded as journaling now, which makes me feel weird. Journalling tips are all like “have scented candles” and “make sure you end with a positive affirmation!”
Not my vibe but whatever works for you.
It clarifies what’s really on your mind. Where your real priorities lie.
Hurrying it makes it slower
Pen time is an invaluable part of the idea-having process. But not all of it. There’s an incubation period.
For years of working as a professional creative, I’d sit there for hours with the notebook jotting down ideas. I took some pride in sticking at it for hours. There’s this idea you can only write or create when the muse strikes. It’s a weak lazy approach, by people who will never produce much good work.
In maybe ten percent of cases, I’d have the idea during those sessions. Mostly, I’d have the idea the next morning, staring at the back of a bus on the peak-hour drive to the office. Sleep had rearranged all the random pieces of the puzzle, and in the trance-state of driving: bing! There’s the big idea.
You can’t hurry it, that only makes it slower. It’ll happen.
And you don’t have to work in creative jobs to need ideas. Every job benefits from different ways of thinking. Your whole life will. Even if your big idea is to leave this job and move to another state. The pen knows.
If you always have a tech device in your hand, you never enter the essential boredom state to have an idea that might change your life. You’re just dancing to other people’s tune. Consuming their ideas, their priorities, their values without focusing on your own.
Maybe that includes reading my stuff. Convenient for me to make that point at the end of the story but anyway: yay pens.
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Why not buy this nice book?
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