Andrew Critch thinks people should be spending more time than they currently are using paper as a working memory aid while thinking, especially large paper (for even more working memory). It is really astonishing how helpful this can be. We consistently encourage people to do it at CFAR workshops nearly every time they learn a new technique or attempt to debug themselves or each other.

Paper is both very helpful and very easy to use - so why aren't people already using it all the time (including me)? I have a few vivid memories of times at CFAR workshops where I had to prod two people who were having a cognitively intensive conversation to use paper as shared working memory, and by "people" I mean CFAR instructors. It's harder than it looks.

My guess is that people have unresolved aversions to paper coming from school, where paper was how other people forced you to do things like homework and tests.

Really, it's horrifying to think about how much of what you've written down on paper was entirely forced on you.

So, you'll need to do some work if you want to reclaim the right to write whatever you want on paper, instead of whatever you've been trained to write. Good luck. Here are some words to take with you on your way.

Just because you are writing on paper does not mean you are still in school.

Nobody is going to grade you.

This is not homework. This is not a test.

This is your mind.

This is your life.


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63 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:17 PM

I am a minimalist in life and own very few things, but one of the few things I always buy when I move to a new place is 20 stick-on-the-wall whiteboards, and over 1000 sheets of paper, and this is a big quality of cognition improvement.

(For those of you who don't know, you can get very cheap whiteboard that stick on the wall entirely via static, and are trivially removable/repositionable. Here's the amazon UK and US brands that I use.)

I've also found sharpies much better than normal pens when using paper with someone. I find it gets us out of the school mode of 'we must write down all the words' and into the playful diagrams/explanation mode where 'I write down only the useful things'. More like note-taking than work.

I strongly second the stick-to-the-wall whiteboards recommendation!

I actually suspect that the performance improvement for marker over pens is due in part to increased legibility - both from the tendency to write larger when using a marker (I know that I tend to draw really tiny diagrams with pens) and because markers leave a much thicker mark on the paper.

@Ben, this post has already had a measurable positive impact on my life. I hadn't heard of these before, and I've since purchased and used them to help with important decisions. Thanks!

Thank you for that link! That looks easier than finding somewhere to prop up the whiteboard in the boot of my car, I'll give it a try. If you don't mind me asking, why do you buy them when you move if they're removable?

Mainly because they’re cheap. Also,

  • they don’t stay firm for more than two months once they’re up (they start peeling off)
  • while they’re eminently movable around a room, if I tried to move used ones between countries I’d expect them to tear.
  • for travelling with unused ones (in the UK brand), they come in a long thin box that is good for short travel e.g. to a workshop I’m giving in town, but a bit too long for my suitcase.

The US brand comes more loose and I may actually find packing them in a suitcase trivial, so we’ll see.

I suspect it's more about trivial inconveniences and failure to "summon sapience". I was homeschooled and don't think I'm particularly traumatized about paper, and I love it when I remember to use it, but I have to stop and remember that it's a good idea, and then go get and use it, which doesn't always happen.

Sure, this won't always be a problem for everyone but I think it's enough of a problem to write about. I worked with a participant at a CFAR workshop who had an explicit and strong aversion to writing anything down on paper and I suspect milder versions of that contribute to people not remembering to use paper. I often don't use paper even though I put a giant open pad of paper on my desk specifically to use.

Ok, interesting! I'm updating towards that being a real thing, then.

(It wasn't obvious from my reading the post that you had explicit evidence for the theory. It came across to me more as "the only thing I can think of", or something like that.)

So, okay, I'm going to put some cards on the table. I think there are some bugs it's possible to solve en masse by basically blasting people with poetry instead of explaining the mechanics of the bug and waiting for people to solve it themselves, so I'm experimenting with that approach to see where it goes. This is really not a collect-evidence-and-carefully-formulate-hypotheses sort of post, it is a direct I'm-going-to-try-to-tweak-you-now-and-if-it-works-great sort of post.

I want to show a lot of appreciation for being transparent about that. I also hope that eventually, for most things, we will have an explanation that combines motivation, koans/exercises and an accurate model of the situation. But it seems pretty sensible to start from any of those three points.

Welcome to the dark side!

Then don't use a giant open pad on your desk! Keep smallish heaps of almost-scraps that are perfectly nibbleable in strategic locations. My Mom's Telephone Table was a compact breathing nightmare, but it worked for her.


For a while I have been wanting something on the wall by my bed where I could write stuff down (this is easier for me than typing it into an app, and keeps it visible). This post motivated me to get started on acquiring something, so thank you for that!

I decided a whiteboard would suit my needs better, but the problem is that most whiteboards are REALLY UGLY and I DO NOT want them in my room. So I did some poking around on ways to make whiteboards more attractive looking, and here are some results:

-Glass is dry erasable (duh! I knew that, but hadn't previously thought about how to turn that into a nice dry erase board). Something like decorative paper or burlap in a nice frame (with a glass surface) works well as a pretty dry erase board. The plastic material that's sometimes in frames also works, but not as well. You can also just use any piece of glass (old window, glass table top, etc) and mount it on your wall. Or put an empty frame on your wall so that the background color is your paint color.

-There exists dry erase paint that makes walls dry erasable. It is a clear coat, so you can keep whatever color wall you like. My friend has this, but it is moderately hard to wipe off because they didn't sand down the wall first (so it's a mottled surface).

-Metal is generally dry erasable (but uncertain about sealants that might be used on various metals), and you can get it in sheet metal form to make a dry erase board. Galvanized steel sheet metal is ALSO magnetic, if that's useful to you. It's also sharp though, so put it in a frame or whatnot.

-Tin ceiling tiles are really decorative, come in lots of colors, and some have a big flat space in the middle ( like this ). I am uncertain how the sealant or coloring (some have something swiped or mottled on) would effect its dry eraseability though, and the internet doesn't seem to have answers. I expect the untreated one should work just fine, but then you don't get the color choices. I just bought a five dollar sample though, and will tell you how it works.

-Plastic sheet covers are also dry eraseable. I wouldn't want them on my wall, but might be useful to keep in mind.

How did the tin ceiling tiles work?

The tin ceiling tiles work well as dry erase boards. I got a few samples, and learned that if the tile is "unfinished" it is much less dry eraseable than one that is finished. So you can get the tiles in any solid color. Note: Even on the finished ones, if you leave writing up for a really long time (multiple months), then it will leave a bit of an afterimage that's hard to get off, but the same is true for regular dry erase boards.

This is an interesting book. I haven't read the entire thing, but what I have read fits with my experience of compulsive note-taking in a notebook that now has 5 years worth of history: Notebooks are great for generating and aggregating ideas, but if you're not careful, you can get paralyzed by perfectionistic tendencies that make it hard to actually do things (especially if you have tendencies towards perfectionism to begin with). However, I'm gradually getting better at solving this problem. (Worst case, I'll finally take a careful read over the "ideas for overcoming perfectionism" page in my notebook :P)

Huh, that's a very interesting introduction. Where did you find that book?

Not sure. I discovered it many years ago. If you are interested in that reference class of things, you might look at the book Mindhacker--I think Lion wrote a chapter on the system he now uses, which is an updated version of the system in the book.

I've curated this post for three reasons:

  • I and other people I know have seen significant improvements by using paper more
  • It's a simple yet excellent example in the important category of 'rationality improvements via environment change'
  • The post is short and sweet.

The shower is a particularly good place for the sort of thinking that benefits from paper, except most people don't have paper in there. AquaNotes (small waterproof notepads) are good--most of the group houses I've been to have them now--but too small. I tried a few other kinds of waterproof paper, and TerraSlate paper seems to work, and is available in sizes up to A3.


I think a major improvement from when I had aversion to writing in paper was to realize that paper can be thrown away after use, no need to conserve useless half thoughts.

Considering the amount of engagement and positive anecdotes people are putting into this; It appears to me to be evidence that writing things down (in some format) is really helpful. As in, helpful enough that if you are not already writing down your thoughts and ideas you should at the very least take five and come up with an easy way to try it out. This is one of those things that's extremely low cost, with a lot of benefit. Please take the low-hanging fruit.

One more anecdote for the pile: I found carrying and using paper very unwieldy for a long time and recently bought a small messenger bag to carry it all for not much money. This holds a journal, folded up large paper, four differently colored pens, and whatever other miscellanea I happen to have on me. This has completely negated my issues with using paper in a productive way on a daily basis.

"four differently colored pens"

Fantastic post Qiaochu, and let me strongly recommend Swerve's point about four colors of pen.

I regularly carry black, blue, red, and green pens, and they make paper much more useful.

I use blue and black for ephemeral items, green for things that should merit reviewing, and red for urgency/emphasis.

Typically, I write to-do type items in blue and cross them out as they complete. I use black pen for "working memory" / "scratchpaper" type tasks... things that I typically won't need to review later.

It's then a matter of writing important stuff in green or red, or if I realize the importance of something later, circling or starring it in green or red. Red is "look at this now!!" whereas green means it's possibly important for review later.

Reviewing paper and notebooks becomes simple — skim rapidly for green and red items. If I want greater context, I can study the blue and black notes around the green and red, but it's not strictly necessary.

Highly recommended. I feel a little dumber when I don't have a notebook and four colors of pens with me — I've been doing it for some years now and it makes a surprisingly big difference.

Thanks for the reminder; I lost all my colored pens recently and it feels bad.

I think this single technique can't be stressed enough. Writing serves as a kind of exorcism for me. An idea will possess me like a demon for days or weeks, forcing me to run through the same argument or check details again and again until I write it on the page. At that point it crystallizes into something real and external. I have the sense that it's almost impossible to build arguments of more than three or four inferential steps without writing, because the first steps will continue to haunt and possess you until they are exorcised onto the page.

For me, I'm fairly confident it's that paper just feels so much less convenient than typing. I am fairly quick to open up a text editor to help me think, and (less, but not much less) quick to do it in a group context.

But I type way faster than I write (perhaps if I wrote more I'd be better at it?)

The main advantage of paper is for diagrams. I agree with Ben's comment elsewhere about sharpies being good to get you into a diagram mindset, although then you need even larger paper to have enough room.

Agreement that for solo thinking, a text editor is best for me (except for diagrams, where I'll go back to sharpie-and-paper).

I regularly use text editors to make my stream of consciousness explicit, and then notice the errors/fallacies I'd been falling prey to. This is one of my top personal tools for making decisions and clearing up confusions.

Have you ever looked at forms of shorthand? I picked up pieces from a journalism major I knew in college, and then started making up my own. You can write a lot faster if you're willing to be incomprehensible to anyone else.

Yeah, this also seems worth doing, and is part of what I'm trying to get at with breaking out of the school frame. Absolutely no need to be even slightly comprehensible to anyone else if you're just writing for yourself; you don't even have to be comprehensible to yourself in the future if you're just writing for working memory.

I also type way faster than I write and that's also a factor for me, and I also lament the fact that I can't type diagrams. (Critch tried to get me to use some mindmapping stuff awhile back but it felt icky and bad for some reason.) I experimented with using a fountain pen because I heard the writing experience was much smoother, and it helped a little but not that much.

On paper I would recommend using way fewer words; just barely enough to label the thoughts.

Thanks! I'd forgotten that he wrote this. I hear a lot of great stuff from Critch in person (I'm one of his housemates) and I usually assume most of it isn't written up anywhere by default.

I use index cards extensively as an exobrain. I like that I can rearrange them on a desk or table as I'm thinking, sorting ideas into different categories, and I also like that I can idly flip through them while on a bus or when standing in line. A couple hundred will fit in a pocket without being folded, they form a stiff enough surface that I can write on them without needing to find a desk or wall to write on, and they don't give people the sense that I'm not paying attention to them the way taking notes on a phone does. They're also good at forcing me to ruthlessly prioritize information since there's a limited amount of space, but if you need more space then about ten index cards gives you the same available area as a normal sheet of printer paper. The ones I use have lines on one side for writing, and blank space on the other side for drawing. Oh, and you can dog-ear or tear them in certain patterns to allow quickly finding certain categories of cards in the stack.

In the evening when I get ready for bed, I take my cards and lay any new ones I care about preserving on my desk and take a quick picture of them with a smartphone.

On problem with paper is that if you start writing down things on paper you start having to manage the paper. It's physical, so it starts taking up physical space in a way a file or Evernote note doesn't.

No need; nearly all of the benefit in using paper for working memory (not long-term memory, that's what Workflowy is for) is in temporary storage, so as Jaime says you can just throw away the paper later.

This. I've decided that I'm done with organizing paper. Anything I'll ever need to read again, I make digital from the start. But I still use paper routinely, in essentially write-only fashion.

This is also a great thing about whiteboards--they foreclose even the option of creating management burden for yourself.

Or, instead of just throwing paper away, take a photo of it with your handiest (digital) camera (probably your phone) and convert the problem of managing paper to the problem of managing (digital) photos. I often just email myself ad-hoc photos of things like this and I use Gmail for most of my email active accounts. I haven't (yet) needed to explicitly manage my Gmail storage tho.

I also have paper and pen with me all the time. A lot of people are trying to convince me to go digital - including my son - but I have yet to be convinced that there is a way to improve my workflow. Which is this:

  • take notes and sketches making use of however much paper is available and being creative in size, positioning and alignment of text. Quickly.
  • Clearly this doesn't digitize well. It will be ugly, hard to read and lack all the context that you have in your mind at that time. After all it is adding to your memory not replacing it.
  • So the obvious and necessary next step is to convert these notes into actually useful longer-term representations like diagrams, summaries, tasks in a task tracker, calendar entries,...

Until someone creates an app that automates at least some of these things while creating the sketches I am usually worse of with a digital solution:

  • It is not as readily available and always on.
  • It disincentivizes the next step: "I will convert it later" (at which time you have lost of your memory context)

My minimum requirements are really

  • always on (incredibly, eink readers typically do not preserve the last page on power off!!)
  • recognize handwritten text
  • convert lines into appropriate geometric forms (rectangles, ellipses - in any orientation)
  • convert text blocks to calendar entries, tickets, mails,...

Maybe there is an app for that but I have yet to find it. It should be there as these things are all solved, right?

ReMarkable solves some of these issues. I am now at the point where I have so many notes written on traditional paper that I do not want more to accumulate more and I cannot efficiently consult them without OCR and search functionality

Thank you. I looked into ReMarkable and it seems very alike to the Boox that I got as a present and that I'm utterly disappointed with (yes really). Can you tell me whether it has

  • a screensaver mode that just keeps on the screen what was last visible?
  • an OCR that does not throw the original notes away (the arrangement e.g. in a mindmap)

uhh, it goes to sleep after a bit, but brings you back to what you were last doing.

The OCR doesn’t destroy the original

convert lines into appropriate geometric forms

Nope on this

convert text blocks to calendar entries, tickets, mails,...


I just got a RocketBook Everlast and it's good at motivating me to write things down. The ability to write things down that I then upload easily to Evernote reduces the guilt of throwing paper away (uploading to OneNote or Dropbox is also possible). Depending on how neatly you write this means that your notes are also searchable and continued advances in text recognition will only increase the searchability.

The fact that the RocketBook is then reuseable by simply removing the content with a wet towel means that no unnecessary paper will pill up.

Moved to frontpage (only just noticed that it wasn't).

I notice that the size of my "workspace" (computer screen size, paper size, whiteboard size) contributes to a vague sense of how much I'm supposed to output. It's a sort of "I've got a 4'x8' notebook, so this has to be a 4'x8' thought."

More realisticly, it's probably me going "ugh, I don't like flipping between pages to gather thoughts, so I'm going to try and make it fit on one page."

Main point: When I get bigger paper, I more often have bigger thoughts. I recently did some deep self-reflection, and used a whole notebook of 18'x24' which was tremendously helpful.

There are now tablet apps (e.g. GoodNotes or OneNote on the iPad) that allow you to have huge virtual paper (due to zoom in feature) and a wide variety of virtual writing tools. It also allows select, copy+paste (instead of re-writing something repetitive). Also solves the preservation of notes problem some people care about. I highly recommend trying it.

Have any of you tried Wacom Tablet + Inkscape?

It's (nearly) everything people have asked for above, and my favorite way to think using System 3, as some call it.

I've had a similar love as Critch for large canvases to dump my thoughts in. This usually meant desks in the library that I would messily (and unashamedly) scribble on from top to bottom, then losing them the next day. When I really wanted to save those notes I ended up taking some hasty pictures (that I never revisited because tiny).

But with Inkscape, consider - infinte canvas and resolution, combinations of text, freehand and other vector graphics, zoom & pan for focusing or looking at the big picture, permanent digital storage (and little environmental waste), colors (like others have said, this one changes everything, but especially so without trivial inconveniences and no penalties on experimentation), and my personal favorite - guaranteed neatness, with the ability to group and move objects around. (I really love the fact that all strokes automatically become objects because I find it very difficult to keep tidy while in a manic frenzy; this lets you draw fast and edit later, as in writing.)

The only drawback is that it isn't nearly as portable. And that I can't seem to dot the i's in freehand sometimes because vector pens don't make points.

I've started carrying around a small, thin notebook in my back pocket. It's been very nice as a memory aid. Very useful to capture simple things like shopping list items or phone numbers or general reference information that I know I will need to use in the future.

I am always intensely skeptical of people who don't bring notebooks to meetings. Sometimes I'm the only one present with a notebook. What, you think you're going to just remember the twenty details and action items that were agreed on?

I am always intensely skeptical of people who don't bring notebooks to meetings. Sometimes I'm the only one present with a notebook. What, you think you're going to just remember the twenty details and action items that were agreed on?

I generally don't bring a notebook to meetings when I expect a decent quality note-taker. I find that taking notes while listening often distracts from my ability to generate novel thoughts, especially if I'm spending more than half the time just taking notes. (And as I don't write particularly fast, this tends to happen unless I stick only to writing down a very small fraction of interesting conversations!)

I'm jealous you're going to such high-quality meetings! I'd expect tho, that if I was attending meetings that generated actual details and action items, that someone would be (explicitly) responsible to email everyone in the meeting afterwords with all of the details and action items.

Also, I feel like people should snowclone "X is not a special snowflake" more. "My textbook is not a special snowflake [and I may buy a better one]" (it really sticks if you have to offload a hundred such textbooks), "my pen is not a special snowflake [and I can write with it, dammit]", "my notes are not special snowflakes [and don't have to be perfect or legible]". Just imagine things being manufactured , as in there being hundreds of thousands of them.

I suspect that for many people outside of our community (particularly those who veer towards the neurotypical side of things), the biggest cause for aversion is that using paper in this way is considered to be "weird".

In social settings, I suspect that these people don't want to be viewed as weird. When you're alone, I suspect that the cause is more subtle. I suspect that there is some part of the brain that thinks, "if you do this, then I'll be forced to think of you as a weird person, and that will lower my self-esteem, which is painful, so please don't act like a weirdo".

I think my aversion to using more paper is more from a 'wasting resources/materials' / 'environmentalism' feeling. Just wanted to throw in another data point.

Well, but I'm curious where you were exposed to the idea that you shouldn't waste paper. For me it was in, y'know, school.

By the way, the whole concept of wasting paper is propaganda. Using paper does not in any sense kill trees. Paper is mostly made from trees that are farmed, which means that when you use more paper, you increase the demand for trees, so the market responds by supplying more trees.

Businesses also push this anti-paper propaganda. I'll cop to pushing an anti-paper agenda too at work, tho in my case it's because my job should be to provide them with better tools that would obviate them from needing to continually print spreadsheets to visualize whatever.

Thank you for this post! I like writing on paper (I don't think I'm negatively influenced by school actually, and it definitely helps me think) but I have an aversion to it because keeping it around is such a hassle. When I do write something down on paper I intend to digitalize it/scan it, but I don't actually do that. I'm already stuck with ten notebooks full of stuff; I don't want to accumulate more.

I manage to convert lecture notes into Anki cards though, so I suppose it's partially having a plan, and practicing.

Maybe a whiteboard would help, too, because I can't keep it in the first place. I should look into that.

Does anyone have additional ideas of how to get used to paper?

but I have an aversion to it because keeping it around is such a hassle

I've recently switched to doing most of my thinking on paper, and the key for me is not keeping the paper around. It's tempting to use paper as a long term storage for ideas, but I aim to use it solely as a working memory extension. I try and enforce this by tearing up a piece of paper as soon as I'm done using it to think (or if there's more space, I scribble out the existing writing). If I want to keep the idea recorded somewhere, I try to create the most bare bones set of key-words and question needed to regenerate the info, and I put those nuggets in an online wiki.

I think that if a person is at all inclined to collect things, paper is essential. (Although I draw the line at carrying a pencil - it's more trustworthy than a pen when it's raining or something, but I never got the trick of keeping my pencils sharp). It actually works just fine for long-term memory, too :)

Do you think making a .txt file in a notepad executable would be a suitable alternative?

Better than nothing but not good for diagrams. Diagrams are extremely useful for thinking.

I want to push back on text not being good for diagrams; this isn't necessarily true. Consider Markdown. It's very readable raw and almost any diagram can be represented as a tree, i.e. a list with nested lists.

Single datapoint, but... I love markdown for notes. The formatting shorthands are great, and an automatically-generated Table of Contents is a nice plus.

It hasn't been easy for me to find anything that offered both flow-chart diagramming and cloud-sync, though. And both markdown and HTML are bafflingly awkward to make tables with (Why can't somebody just set up a painless csv wrapper? Or if that exists, please tell me?).

Most decent markdown editors are also LaTeX capable, which I probably use even more than diagrams. There's a bit of a learning-curve for that, but nowadays I can type out most equations without so much as looking at the keyboard (let alone looking up symbols).

GitLab's Markdown supports charts and diagrams.

I find tables in Markdown pretty easy to input, on a computer, because I can format them easily in Vim, my favorite and always-open text editor.

...although whenever I carry some equipment beyond just paper and pen (ruler, compass, eraser, or worse - a binder), reaching for paper is more of a chore. I need to trick myself into "oh that's Emergencies Stuff, I don't need it, I'm just being responsible".