In my (free) Thinking Directions Starter Kit, I teach a foundational tactic called “Thinking on Paper.” Whenever you need leverage to deal with any mental issue — cognitive, emotional, or behavioral — “thinking on paper” helps. The process of purposefully writing out your thoughts, sentence by sentence, activates relevant knowledge, brings hidden values to light, and frees you from pressure.
You can “think on paper” on a computer, but I usually do it by hand. Most people find handwriting increases their power of concentration. I use a 4-color pen, which lets me effortlessly add color coding as I go. With the click of a button, I can raise my level of self-awareness and purposefulness for my thinking process. Here are a few examples of how I use it.
I do most of my “thinking on paper” in black ink. But when I notice I am in trouble, I switch mental gears and physical colors. I start thinking at the “meta-level” in blue ink. I ask questions such as, “Why am I stuck? and “What am I going to do about it?” When I figure out what to do, I go back to my original line of thinking and the black ink.
The shift of colors reinforces the shift of purpose. This is particularly important if you are trying to break out of a loop. It is easy to keep going in circles. It takes extra effort to stop looping and start thinking about why you’re looping — and what to do about it. If you drop the reins, you can easily drop back into the loop. Changing the pen color is a visual reminder that you are rejecting the status quo.
I often use colors to mark up my “thinking on paper” on a second pass. This is particularly true when I am doing introspective work. On my second pass, I do two things: I name the deep rational values* that underlie my thoughts, and I identify any threat-oriented thoughts that may be problematic.
I write the values in the margin in green ink. Using that color for the deep rational values helps remind me to be precise. I want to identify the values, not list positive emotions or make positive comments. I am not naming the values to feel good or convince myself that bad stuff isn’t happening. I’m doing it to identify the unnamed values that are hovering around the edges of my thoughts. This is critically important for effective self-direction. But like going to the “meta-level,” it takes a little extra purposefulness to do it. Switching to green ink helps set and maintain that intention.
In contrast, I underline threat-oriented thoughts in red. As I reread, I click back and forth between red and green ink. Every threat-oriented thought is also a lead to a value at stake, and I want to identify the value at risk. For example, I might underline in red “I am totally in the weeds” and write in green in the margin next to it “clarity” and “overview.”
I underline threat-oriented thoughts in red because I do not accept these thoughts as necessarily true or relevant. Some are self-defeating thoughts that should be rejected and replaced with constructive alternatives. Some are pessimistic thoughts that need to be reality-tested. If there are in fact real, relevant threats, these facts need to be embraced, NOT grudgingly accepted. That’s what’s needed to figure out my best way forward.
But that potentially painful analysis is reserved for a third pass. On the second pass, the green ink is my priority. I want to see all of the values at stake in my situation. Sometimes that step will dissipate all the pseudo-threats. But if I do need to dig into more analysis, the green ink sets me up for success. Even in the midst of the bad stuff will be patches of green ink, reminding me that my values are all around me, and the goal here is to get the values.
These are just a few ways that colored ink helps me be more self-aware and purposeful during “thinking on paper.” Could you do the same on a computer? Probably — tell me how it works for you.
Self-awareness is a complex process. It involves clarifying your priorities, integrating your values, and dissolving old defenses. It is probably the most complex thinking process many people ever perform. To be effective at it, you need to observe yourself and evaluate what’s going on without devolving into either self-criticism or self-indulgence. Color coding your “thinking on paper” makes that easier.
*Note: I introduce “deep rational values” and distinguish values from emotions in the (free) Thinking Directions Starter Kit.