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 o... (read more)

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@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!

16LawChan2yI 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.
17Ben Pace2yMainly 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.

Paper Trauma

by Qiaochu_Yuan 1 min read31st Jan 201863 comments


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.