Put Your Problems on Paper


The Eight of Coins is about taking some time to yourself to learn and master a new skill.

I’ve never been one to keep up with a daily diary or journal. Tim Ferriss recommends morning pages. My friend, Jason Zook, writes 1,000 words every morning that he often just throws away. Austin Kleon keeps three active notebooks, which he uses daily. My own writing, on the other hand, is always in the service of some goal—client work, a blog post, a book draft.

Plenty of my writing never sees the light of day, but rarely do I ever write simply for personal edification. It is, I’ve realized, a shortcoming. Writing for yourself, knowing no one else will ever see those private thoughts, can pay dividends.

The fourth U.S. president, James Madison, frequently wrote not for publication, but to gain a better understanding of his subject:

“Whenever he faced a challenging policy problem he would retreat to his books, research the issue, attempt to improve on what the greatest authorities had to say, and put it together into a private essay.”

In the lead up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he spent months studying constitutional design and synthesizing his own thoughts on paper. The act of writing—rather than simply turning things over in his mind—forced him to wrestle with his beliefs and strengthen his arguments. In the end, he was the most prepared delegate at the convention and used his expertise to lobby for his own policy positions (many of which made it into the final, ratified document).

For a more modern example, there’s the essayist David Sedaris. He’s used his own private diaries as inspiration for over nine books:

“Over a given three-month period,” he writes, “there may be fifty bits worth noting, and six that, with a little work, I might consider reading out.”

He fills roughly four notebooks a year, without expectation, never knowing what thoughts or overheard bits of conversation might come in handy later. He trusts the process and frequently reviews his diary by way of a detailed index.

When I reflect on these practices, I think, “where do these people find the time?” Who can disappear for months to research and compose private essays about constitutional history (it’s not the 1780s anymore)? How does Sedaris keep up, not only with a diary, but with an organizational scheme that makes it useful? Today, there is so much pressure to publish on a consistent schedule, to share your process and work, that it seems impossible to sacrifice even an hour to write something that will ultimately die on your hard drive or in a notebook.

But writing for yourself can be a form of self-care. On the rare occasion that I put my problem on paper, I find that I am much more likely to solve it.


As author Marilynne Robinson writes:

Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected.

Writing through a problem is much more powerful than thinking through it. Seeing your own thoughts on paper reveals weaknesses in your own arguments and leads you on a process of discovery towards a new and powerful solution. It can also lead to a kind of magic where your subconscious and fingers do an end run around your conscious mind to make great ideas appear out of nowhere.

That’s why this year, I am going to try to keep a logbook. I am going to try to organize my notebooks. And I am going to try to leave more time to write without expectation. Perhaps expanding a little extra effort on myself will make it easier to discover interesting ideas to share with you.

Your One Task

This week, I’m debuting a new feature called “Your One Task.” At the end of every newsletter, I’ll give you one action item that you should complete this week to try a new habit, move forward with your creative goals, and make the most of the this article.

This week, find 30 minutes to write something that’s just for you. It doesn’t matter how you do it (by hand, on the computer, carved into stone tablets) and it doesn’t matter how long it is or what it’s about. Just find some time to sit down and put words on paper (or computer screens or stone tablets). You never know what you might discover.

And if you do the exercise, take a photo of your notebook or computer screen (or stone tablets) and let me know!

Each week, I write a new article helping busy people find meaning and fulfillment through sustainable creative habits. If you enjoyed this week’s letter, you can sign up to get them delivered to your inbox each week by digital carrier pigeon.