Yes, It’s the Electronic Age, But Don’t Forget Paper-Age Lessons

Thinking Tools

Here’s some old-fashioned advice that may be just what you need to get out of a present-day thinking block: Spread out your notes all over your desk.

That’s right, your desk, not your computer screen. Yes, programs exist to move around words in many wonderful easy ways. But sometimes you need to have those words spread out over a space the size of a desk.

Take the case of outlining a presentation. In the past, the standard procedure was to write out the points on individual index cards, then sort them into stacks by similar topic, then rearrange the stacks into a logical progression. An outline was created by shuffling cards around on your desk.

Today, this procedure has been largely supplanted by programs like Powerpoint that let you rearrange points (or slides of points) with the click of a mouse. You save time because you never have to retype the points. As soon as you figure out the order, you have a clean version.

But here’s the issue: if you are bogging down trying to get a large number of points in order in Powerpoint, you probably need to go back to the low-tech alternative to get some mental leverage.

When you spread out the points all over your desk, you get two advantages.

First, you can move them with nearly zero effort. There’s no need to fuss to move the mouse to the exact location to click and drag a point. There’s no scrolling. You just grab a card and move it. It is noticeably faster.

Second, you can use perceptual cues to remember where stacks are. With a quick glance, you can find anything. You never have to stop to remember, “where in the file did I put together that stack of miscellaneous points I don’t know what to do with?” Nor do you have to interrupt your train of thought to do an electronic search.

These may seem like trivial advantages, but on a complex task, you need all the speed and brainpower you can get. The test of whether you need this advantage is, do you bog down? If you are bogging down, you need the extra mental leverage that spreading out notes on a large surface offers you.

Yes, doing things on the computer often saves retyping. But if your mental process bogs down due to the mechanics, you can easily lose all the time you might have saved.

So, monitor for your mental need for that wide, visual-spatial overview–and don’t hesitate to hit “print,” clear your desk, and pull out the scissors. The time you save will be your own.



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