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 ti... (read more)

31lionhearted2yFantastic 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.

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.