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Writing is doing
  • Calendar Jul 01, 2019
  • User Jared Wells
  • Category In Uncategorized
  • Comments 0 Comments

If you are like most students, you’ve had a teacher who took points off a test question because you didn’t show your work. It probably felt frustrating, especially if you got the question correct. “Why does it matter what I wrote down if I can do the problem correctly without writing it down?” you might have said to yourself.

I want to talk about “showing your work” a little more generally (that is, it isn’t just about math problems!) 

When you tell someone (or yourself!) that you are going to do something, we can presuppose a couple of things

  1. You intend to complete the task (you aren’t telling someone you’ll do it with the intention of not doing it)
  2. You intend to do the task as accurately and correctly as possible (you aren’t intending to perform poorly on the task).

This applies to math problems, studying history, meeting with a teacher, picking your brother up from practice, applying for colleges, and cleaning your room.

Any student who works with me will eventually hear me say “Writing is doing”. What I mean by this is that, when you say you are going to do something, the choice to write (or not) is often a determining factor in whether the thing you say you are going to do gets done (and well) or not.

How is that?

There are a lot of things that writing things down can do for you:

  1. This one is obvious, but it creates a record you can refer back to. Your memory isn’t perfect, so if it’s important to you to do what you say you will, writing things means that forgetting does not equal failure (so long as it is written down in a place that you will look back at periodically!)
  2. Besides the fact that you CAN’T rely on memory, you don’t want to. Trying to keep track of all the important things you need to with your memory creates mental clutter which makes it tough to focus on the task at hand. If you’ve ever tried to go to sleep with your mind racing with all the things you need to do tomorrow, you’ve experienced this. Writing things down in a place that you can trust means that you are free up your mental RAM to focus on the task at hand, and makes it less likely you’ll be distracted with thoughts of all the other things you need to do/remember. So even thought it might not be necessary to write something down to successfully complete it, it might be necessary to write it down to successfully complete something else!
  3. When you are working on a complex task, it's tough to keep all the parts in your mind all at once (think about a complicated word problem). Writing down what you know allows you to focus on one or two pieces at a time, rather than trying to juggle multiple complex ideas all at once.
  4. It brings consciousness to the process. Ideas can be “in one ear, and out the other”. Writing things down, even if you NEVER look at what you’ve written down, gives you a the opportunity to imprint the idea in your mind and take a moment to give your full attention to the thought or idea, making it more likely that you remember it even without having to refer back to it. This helps you to avoid mistakes as well, since mistakes are often the result of not fully thinking something through.
  5. Writing is a process of creation, and turning vague thoughts into concrete words can often help you notice when you don’t understand something as well as you thought you did. What makes sense in your head sometimes has clear flaws or errors when you put pen to paper.
  6. Writing is a “small first step”. When you have a complicated task to do, and it seems tough to even get started, writing down the steps can help you figure out how to get started. When you see the steps written out, the first step might not seem so hard, and it creates some momentum to get started. 
  7. And all of the above is ignoring the fact that what you’ve written can be read by other people! If the task you need to complete needs input or involvement from other people, writing down your part can help clear up possible misunderstandings (no “he said, she said”). Even if you don’t need any further involvement from anyone else, someone else’s seeing what you understand your task to be can be helpful in clearing up any confusion you might have.

Ok, so maybe you agree that writing a step in a math problem can help. But how can “writing things down” help you clean your room?

First, it can help you remember to do it. If you’ve got a lot to do, it might be easy to forget. The act of writing it down also makes it more likely you’ll remember to do it in the first place.

If your room is REALLY messy, such that cleaning it requires thinking...how to get started, deciding where things should go, maybe the job is so big you’ll need to do it over a couple days, etc, writing down what you want to do and the order in which you’ll do things can help you get started, especially if it feels overwhelming.

Having written down all the OTHER things you need to do and remember will free your mind for the thinking needed for cleaning your room (instead of constantly being distracted by other responsibilities as you try to stay on task).

There is one more benefit to writing something down, in my experience. Writing something down elevates the importance of the thing you are writing down, in your mind and in the minds of people around you. When you write things down, you are communicating something about yourself, to yourself and to other people: that you are a person who cares about getting things done and getting them done correctly. 

I’m sure you don’t do this(?!), but imagine that you are walking out the door of your class, and you teacher calls you to give you some instructions about how to complete an assignment, and you loudly sigh and say, “yea, yea, I’ll get to that.” Now, it could be that you have every intention of “[getting] to that”, but what are you communicating to your teacher (and your subconscious mind) about how important that thing is to you? What are you communicating to your teacher about how important your teacher is to you?

Compare that to stopping, facing the teacher, sitting down at a desk, pulling out your planner/notepad, and asking the teacher to repeat the instructions so that you can write it down. What does that communicate?

Here are two easy ways to “write more”.

Purchase a small steno pad (you can get one for $1 at a drug store) and carry it and a pen with you in your pocket or purse (somewhere it is readily accessible, so it isn’t annoying to search for it...making it easy to get to means it’s more likely that you’ll actually use it) Anytime you come across any information that you’ll want to remember, pull out your pad and write it down. Make this a habit.

Secondly, purchase a composition book and start journaling. Lots of people look at journaling and think, “what is the point?” or “what am I supposed to write about?” Best way to use a journal if you aren’t sure what to use it for is for a mind dump. Spend five minutes a day writing down anything that is in your mind. Don’t worry about complete thoughts. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. Just write, for five minutes, anything that comes to your mind. Eventually, you’ll get to the thoughts that have been bogging you down, and getting them down on paper might give you some clarity about them. But it will definitely help you free up some mental space for the other things that need your attention.

The summer is the time to start developing these habits, so that by the time the school year comes around, you’ve got these tools well-developed to help you face the challenges of the school year!

Looking for help with planning and organization? Call to sign up for our “Getting Things Done for students workshop this summer!”

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