How a Notebook Empowers Thought

A notebook can be a powerful tool, helping you learn how to think more clearly. At Humanity 2050—where we focus on thinking about long-term challenges of the human future—we certainly need the kind of careful, deliberative frames of thought that can be cultivated by using a notebook. (Obviously, some of the specific ideas that emerge after years of work on a problem—as with comments about risks associated with the rise of AI—are complex enough that they need to be described elsewhere and combined with perspectives offered by other groups.) Yet some of the cognitive tools we use, like a notebook, provide a starting point that is simple enough that almost anyone can try it. Whether you hope to advance your career, need to make a big life decision, feel stuck in your current circumstances, or want to help us think about these global challenges, there’s one key step that can help with everything else: Start a notebook.

A notebook empowers thought in a way that can change your life. To begin, the simple physical presence of the notebook becomes a symbol and a reminder of your dedication to your own growth and development. It gives a frame and a support system that helps when making key decisions. A fresh insight—once written down—need never be lost. A partially developed plan will stay in place if you need to close the notebook and come back a few days later. You’ll gradually come to see how your notebook serves as a kind of huge flywheel. Ideas keep spinning round and changing form in a way that facilitates the function of mind. New lines of inquiry can open up with a simple query, expand as you explore leads and options, and then come to a focus as you develop a new plan.

Obviously, everyone will be at a different stage in life and will face different decisions, but this is precisely the reason that a notebook helps. Your notebook becomes the one book on the planet that’s devoted to your individual needs, your learning style, your life choices, and your future. Start by respecting yourself enough, taking life seriously enough to understand that your life is well worth the time and attention that a notebook entails. The skills needed to make better life choices are part art, part science; certainty is never possible. But a notebook gives a realm in which you can play with possibilities, blend different modes of thought, learn how to think at a new, much deeper level.

It’s quite easy to get started. If you don’t have one already, buy a notebook (preferably with pages about 8”x10”). Set the first few pages aside for later use as an index. (These will be filled in as your notes expand and you want a quick way to find key sections.)

Then print out and paste in the initial prompts—offered at the end of this post—about how to use a notebook. Note: There’s no need to study all the tips in detail right now; some of the comments will make more sense as you begin using your notebook. And there’s no pressure to memorize this list of suggestions. They’ll be there, right at hand, every time you pick up the notebook.

Turn to the next open page, enter the date, and get ready to make this notebook your own. Pause for a few minutes and think: What problems have been on my mind? What key decision(s) am I facing this year? What are the “branch points” that may help shape the rest of my life? Write down a few questions; perhaps make a sketch to show how “possible futures” branch out in different directions. Now pause for a few minutes and think: When will I next have 20 or 30 minutes to come back and pay attention to this notebook and to continue exploring these decisions? Write it down; make the commitment. Send yourself a calendar invite if that helps ensure that you can block out the time.

Now you’re set; you’re underway. You can pause for a minute and celebrate the new power this notebook will bring to your life. As you’ll come to appreciate, it provides a way for you—even in these most personal realms of thought—to take advantage of the power of written language. Mind never gets overwhelmed. You always have an easy way to augment working memory: you can write down all the intermediate stages of analysis, and can come back later as needed. (Rereading a few pages as you start the next session may help you “refresh” and get up to speed again.) Other modes of thought blend in easily: sketches and diagrams and mind maps can be added as you like; conscious and subconscious modes of thought both get called into play as you let ideas incubate and percolate between formal sessions with your notebook. Ideas arising at odd moments during the day can easily be jotted down on a card and tucked into the notebook for “processing” in the next session. (Or you can use email or phone messages, or a separate, miniature notebook for ideas that arise on the fly.)

Life brings tough choices. Day by day, you need to make the tough decisions. You cannot live via “what is known by others”; your life must be lived on the basis of ideas that are physically instantiated in your own brain, your own neural networks. Youmust take responsibility, and you may find that a notebook helps.

It takes work—a bit of discipline when starting—yet it soon becomes fun. Life is an amazing adventure, and taking better advantage of the power of the mind changes everything else. Every life will be different, and will gain fresh energy and power in a different way, but this notebook opens up a whole new world of possibility—letting you live life more fully, become your best self, letting you take advantage of the kind of notebook that Darwin and Da Vinci kept.


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Tips When Starting a Notebook

Note: You can download these tips as a PDF.

#1)  Give this process—learning how to use the notebook—a little time. It’s a bit like starting an exercise program: you may need a few weeks to adjust before you begin to have fun and to feel the full benefit. To get started, set aside some time—perhaps 20 minutes a day, perhaps 2 hours a week—when you can step back and think about the big “pivot points” in your life.

#2)  Learn to shift and to move easily across every level of thought—sometimes writing out the big questions, sometimes jotting down the names of a few people you want to contact, sometimes listing titles of books to read or articles to study. If you like, paste in some motivational or inspirational messages for yourself.

#3)  Be open: approach life—and every decision—with a kind of humility, wonder, and curiosity. No matter how smart, each of us knows so little that there are endless opportunities to learn and improve.

#4)  Don’t try to answer all the big questions and make all the big decisions immediately. You’ll often find that it helps to break them into a list of subsidiary questions. (Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner emphasize this idea in their book Superforecasting.)  Each new question is precious; each helps engage some other background knowledge from your own experience; each opens new avenues for further exploration.

#5)  Use your notebook as a way of looking ahead, trying to see out over the horizon. Jot down a few notes—as necessary—to learn from your mistakes, but never confuse the role of this notebook with the role of a journal. It’s not a logbook to make some record of where you have been; it works in a realm of thought that always looks forward, that remains at the very boundary of the known and the unknown. You need to explore your dreams and see which might become real.

#6)  Don’t censor your notes, and don’t press too hard for some quick decision or some final, integrated perspective. The mind will first need time to change and grow as you study all the pieces, as you list and pursue all the subsidiary questions. Give yourself the privacy to explore ideas you’re not ready to say aloud—perhaps to consider a role so new, so bold that others might think you’re too ambitious.

#7)  Have fun and learn how to move easily among different “mental frames.” Learn to mix flights of imagination (exploring a fresh, open world of possibility) with the cold, careful use of reason (returning to ground and checking how well your plans might work). You don’t need to obsess to make good decisions. It’s all a question of learning how to think most carefully, not an exercise in cultivating new levels of anxiety.

#8)  To put it another way: use your notebook as a kind of sandbox in which you can safely play with possibilities. Much of the art comes here: there’s no point in having a world that’s entirely imaginary, but—equally—there’s no point in keeping everything rigidly fixed in the context of your current circumstances. Be bold, be brave; don’t hesitate to venture in new territory if you start to think you may have the strength to make the journey.

#9)  Don’t hesitate to write out concrete plans, but let them incubate before implementation. Give the subconscious mind some chance to react: see how you feel, explore any sense of fear or unease that may arise. Bounce the new plan off of friends. Remember: ideas can shift, reflecting moment-to-moment changes in the perception of our current situation. It takes time to be sure that new ideas and new plans are consistent with everything we know, with all other aspects of our life, with the full range of outcomes that is possible as we implement our new plan.

#10)  Use your notebook as a workspace where you can capture and explore good ideas in any form, from any source, at any stage of development. When—let us say—someone else offers you other ideas on how to use a notebook, just print them out, paste them in, and study them as you refine your technique. Every new idea offers a fresh opportunity for growth, but you can’t take full advantage until you understand the suggestion, evaluate the relevance to your own life, and update your plans. Your notebook, and the precious time you spend with it when planning and thinking, set up the kind of “metabolic system” needed for full development of mind. You may feed off the ideas of others, but you’ll be able to digest and rethink and rearrange and connect as you work to build a full, rich world of mind for yourself.

#11)  After a month or two—after you see how well things work with a pen and a physical notebook—it’s time to pause and ask yourself: would some other system be better? Are you more likely to return to your “notebook” if it is on your computer instead? (Or does that bring too many risks of distraction?) Remember, the only real issue involves learning to understand how you think, learning how you can best develop your own mind and your own methods of thought. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but do try to have some kind of notebook that helps you keep this flywheel spinning, that helps you mix all these myriad modes of thought, that lets you move above all the day-to-day demands of your career and family life.

#12)  If you are—perhaps—inspired to help tackle some of the hardest problems on the planet, please get in touch with us at (And please sign up for updates as we discuss other “tools for thought” needed to reach your full potential, and needed when addressing the challenge of ensuring a livable human future.)

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