Three reasons to put pen to paper to cage your monkey mind

Updated: Jan 16, 2019


Do you ever feel like your mind is crammed full of ideas, curiosities, worries and reflections that bounce around and compete for your attention?

I'm a definite yes.

Ironically, the more things on my mind, the less I am able to do with any of it. It all tends to just accumulate and float around on repeat, jumbled and practically useless. There can be so much happening inside a frantic mind that it ultimately defeats your ability to control it and act on any one idea.

Think of it as your monkey mind.

The monkey mind is the incessant stream of chatter that runs in your head on repeat. The phrase stems from Buddha's description of the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys that jump around, screech and carry on endlessly, in a clamor for attention.


To tame the monkey mind, it can help to meditate, ponder in your head, or talk out loud or to others. For me, I find calm and clarity if I put pen to paper. The process of hand writing allows me to funnel my eclectic collection of ideas, dreams and fears out of my head and cage the rambunctious monkeys that clutter my mind in between the margins of a sheet of paper. It helps me to focus, quell my anxieties, put problems in perspective and develop the inkling of an idea into a fully fledged concept.

These days, there's not really much need to hand write things. You may be old school and jot down a 'to do' list on paper, or have a print calendar on the wall. But how often do you actually write a substantial message or page of words? A recent British study polled more than 2000 people and found that one in three did not write anything of substance in the last six months.

Hand writing is slow, often messy, and old fashioned. Today, people demand the quick, clear and efficient option. Like so many things, hand writing has taken the back seat to the speed and convenience of technology.

Some professionals say that hand writing actually helps to develop our brains and our physical coordination. In contrast, words tapped to appear on a screen are not connected to literacy or motion. We have spell check and auto correct to do the hard yards for us. That's if we even want our words to make sense. In the age of electronic communication, it seems that grammar and spelling are optional at best (wtf? r u serious. well, yolo.)

There's some things that you can't replicate on a touch screen or computer. Here's three reasons why I put pen to paper to cage my monkey mind.

1. To actually learn things

Ever find that you can capture more content if you use your computer, but you struggle to absorb it? At university, I found that if I chose to hand write it made it a lot easier to memorise things, even if I didn't actually look at the notes again. On the other hand, if I used my laptop to take notes I would mindlessly transcribe a lecturer's presentation or regurgitate passages from a text book. Sure, it looked impeccable and contained all the minute details, but it didn't stick in my head quite the same. Ironically, I noticed that the information would seamlessly travel from the lecturer, to my ears, to my fingers, and on to the screen, but it seemed to bypass my conscious brain.

2. To tap into my creative mind

Hand writing helps me to generate ideas and think conceptually and differently. There are so many ways to express your ideas with a pen on paper that you just can't accomplish on a screen. For Type A, analytical personalities, typing can exacerbate your perfectionist streak and obstruct the free flow of ideas. If I type, I'm far more likely to fret about my choice of words and phrasing of sentences and cut and edit until it's just right.

3. To tease out a tricky problem

The process of hand writing has other benefits. It helps us to:

  • process our ideas and impressions;

  • tackle problems and assess options;

  • handle self-talk; and

  • contain the 'crazy' when our head is full and scattered.

A journal is a perfect place to indulge curiosities and confront anxieties. If you put things on paper, it can illuminate the irrationalities and assumptions that are difficult to spot in your head or on a screen.

My method - themed note books

While I don't keep a traditional 'journal', I do have a lot of note books that float around my house and my bags. I'll dedicate a different note book to a certain topic or theme (for example, ideas and ambitions, daily reflections, a particular problem or area of interest, a competition prep, recipes in progress, etc.) Each note book is home to a combination of pages of free writing, disjointed words, tables, lists and charts. It makes sense to me.

But sometimes, technology triumphs

I am a fan of Evernote for some things, like to store and manage blog posts. I find this to be the most time efficient way to do this because I can have my phone or computer on me at what would be 'dead' times, like the peak hour commute, and still get things done. It also avoids double up, because I ultimately need blog posts in electronic form. That said, my blogs usually unfold from an idea that starts on paper, and I will still switch to hand writing to work shop an idea when I hit a mental block on a screen.

This blog is Part 2 in a series on the value of using a plain old pen and paper to organise and simplify tasks and ideas. For Part 1, read Is your 'to do' list just a form of procrastination? Six criteria to fail proof your list and get it done.