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My Most Powerful Tool for Thinking and Decision Making

Note: This is an updated version of the article that was part of the May 2015 issue of our premium newsletter, Value Investing Almanack.

When historian Charles Weiner looked over a pile of Richard Feynman’s notebooks, he called them a wonderful ‘record of his day-to-day work’.

“No, no!”, Feynman objected strongly. [1]

“They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper.”

“Well,” Weiner said, “The work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.”

“No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper. Okay?”, Feynman explained.

Richard Feynman, who won the Nobel prize for Physics, understood that writing his equations and ideas on paper was crucial to his thought.

I think this should give you some clue about what I am going to write about today.

Let me ask you this – how many times it has happened that, after reading a book, you thought you understood the idea but found it difficult to explain it to others? The idea seemed pretty clear in your head but the moment you had to verbalise it you discovered that either you didn’t have a proper grasp on the idea at the first place or you were unable to explain it in a logical coherent way to a third person.

As far as I am concerned, this is the kind of reaction people gave me, “You’re telling me that you just finished reading a compelling book but can’t explain the central idea in few sentences?”


Reading something passively creates an illusion of knowledge. It creates a confusion between  ‘mere familiarity with the concepts’ in the book and an actual understanding of them. Only by testing ourselves can we actually determine whether or not we really understand.

This is when the Feynman Technique [2] came to my rescue. It says that the mere action of writing something down allows for a more effective integration of the learning. Feynman’s discovery led me to a tremendously useful tool which I call Journaling. It was a Eureka moment.

If the word Journaling sounds like a jargon, let me simplify it by providing you a definition.

Journaling is simply an activity of writing in plain language about what’s going on around you and what are your thoughts about them. It can include things like your future goals, plans, dreams, reminders to yourself, comments on ideas/people or any unrelated thing that crosses your mind. It’s a conversation that you have with yourself.

Today Journaling features in my personal list of top 10 big ideas for life.

Our Brain On Journaling

One fine day, while experimenting with journaling, it dawned on me that it’s almost impossible to write one thing and think something else at the same time. Just like it’s not possible to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth at the same time. It’s the way nature has built us.

The practical implication of this insight was that when I forced my hand to write something, it channeled my thoughts also in the same direction. I discovered that my unchained-thought-monkey could finally be put on a leash. I did, after all, have some control over my thoughts.

Journaling turns out to be not just a tool for thinking but a powerful weapon for focusing thoughts. The more your write, the more precision of thought you build. It allows you to take fuzzy thinking and distill it into precise line of thought. If you want to think better you have to start writing your thoughts.

Writing is a thinking exercise and it acts as a shield against the mental rust. I wonder when majority of the old people in their 80s and 90s can barely remember their family member’s names, how come Warren Buffett who is 85 and Charlie Munger who is 91 are still mentally so sharp? Perhaps a lifetime devotion to reading, writing and learning has something to do with it.

It’s not a common knowledge that writing, apart from being a communication tool, is a thinking tool too. Famous author, Dan Pink, in a commencement speech [3], further validated my belief in this powerful tool. He recommends – “write things to figure out your thoughts”.

For that matter, writing is terribly useful tool for retaining what you read. You have to intersperse your reading with independent thinking to really understand the concepts. Writing introduces that element of thinking hence deepens the understanding.

Problem Solving

Many creative people use writing as problem solving tool.

On getting stuck they write down their question and listen for the answer to come. Sounds creepy right? Neale Donald Walsch, author of best selling book series called Conversations With God [4], claims that his books were not written by him, but they happened through him.

Can it happen to you? You won’t know until you give it a try.

Maria Konnikova, in her book Mastermind [5], writes –

The act of writing and speaking out loud your thesis forces you to slow down and catch those error that are invisible to your eyes.. Your ear notes them when your eye doesn’t.

Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way [6], talks about a similar idea called ‘morning pages’. She says that every artist should journal for least twenty minutes every morning to unleash their creativity.

I believe everybody is an artist. It’s just that some have already discovered their art and the rest are on their way.

Decision Making and Investing

The most serious disease that plagues decision making is Narrative Fallacy (also known as Hindsight Bias), the tendency to find a cause and effect relationship in historical events even if there is none. And the best cure for this disease is maintaining a decision journal.

When Michael Mauboussin posed the question to Daniel Kahneman, what is a single thing an investor can do to improve his or her performance, he said –

..go down to a local drugstore and buy a very cheap notebook and start keeping track of your decisions. And the specific idea is whenever you’re making a consequential decision, something going in or out of the portfolio, just take a moment to think, write down what you expect to happen, why you expect it to happen and then actually, and this is optional, but probably a great idea, is write down how you feel about the situation, both physically and even emotionally. Just, how do you feel? I feel tired. I feel good, or this stock is really draining me. Whatever you think…When you’ve got a decision-making journal, it gives you accurate and honest feedback of what you were thinking at that time.

Once the outcome of your decision is known revisit your decision journal. Odds are you’re going to discover some surprises. It won’t be uncommon to find that in spite of the favorable outcomes, the reasoning wasn’t always right. Outcomes distort your thinking a lot. It’s very counterintuitive to honestly recall how exactly the events unfolded after the result has come.

As an aside, Shane Parrish’s wonderful post [7] on journaling and decision making needs to be read at least twice.

Carol Loomis, who has been editing Warren Buffett’s letters since last 40 years, writes [8]

Writing itself makes you realize where there are holes in things. I’m never sure what I think until I see what I write. And so I believe that, even though you’re an optimist, the analysis part of you kicks in when you sit down to construct a story or a paragraph or a sentence. You think, ‘Oh, that can’t be right.’ And you have to go back, and you have to rethink it all.

Even Warren Buffett observed – “Good writing clarifies your own thinking and that of your fellow shareholders.” A profound thought from the Oracle.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin group, once said “my most essential possession is a standard-sized school notebook,” which he uses for regular writing. If he says so I am sure there must be some merit to the idea of journaling.

It’s A Therapy

While I don’t claim to be a psychic, I reckon that almost everybody has some thoughts which they are scared to share with others, even with people who are very close to them. These thoughts create unfelt emotions which remain suppressed in your subconscious. They need a vent.

Writing about your thoughts in a private journal can have great cathartic effects. Journaling gives an avenue for your unfelt emotions to process themselves. This release allows you to find freedom from the latent emotional baggage.

When you jot down a thought, two things can happen. If it’s a negative thought it’s toxicity will get diluted and it will die out. If it’s a positive thought, it will grow stronger and more refined.

It’s interesting that some thoughts have their own personality and the threat of getting exposed may produce a subconscious resistance. This resistance can make you feel that this activity (writing) is boring and pointless. So it’s very crucial that you journal regularly to be able to discover the therapeutic value of Journaling.

Another psychological benefit created by journaling is that it deepens commitment. The very act of writing things down deepens your resolve to make good things happen in your life. It’s like a declaration to yourself.

Journaling is no less than a therapy.

What and How

Now that I have convinced you about the importance of Journaling, let me share some ideas about ‘what to write’ and ‘how to write’.

First thing that you need to keep in mind is that you aren’t doing this to become a professional writer. The purpose here is to discover yourself. However let me warn you that as an unintentional side effect you will anyway slowly become an effective writer.

So what do you write about? Pour your heart out. Don’t bother too much about forming coherent sentences, incorrect grammar or bad handwriting. Write without fearing that somebody might see it. You can always destroy the paper later.

What do I write about? I express my gratitude for all the blessing in my life. I wonder about the beauty and mystery of life.

Sometimes, you will sit there holding your pen, staring at the blank paper and nothing would seem to appear in your thought screen. Then how about pondering over a question similar to what Steve Jobs regularly asked himself – “If I had only 30 days to live, what would I do?”

In this digital era of smartphones and tablets it’s not an overstatement that coming generation will hardly be using a pen to write. Why should they? Pen is going to pretty much look like a stone age tool to them.

Now as far as journaling is concerned you could always use a digital device (using a keyboard) to write. It’s definitely better than not writing at all. But in my experience there is some magic in grabbing a pen and scribbling in your own handwriting. It generates a unique vibration and a different part of your brain is activated when you write the good old way.

Clive Thompson has some useful insights about pen vs keyboard. He mentions [9]

Writing with a pencil is very effective for structuring your thoughts. The flow of ideas and clarity of thought comes better when you use a pencil.

…However when you want to get your thoughts out on paper for an audience, it needs to flow as fast as possible, i.e., your writing speed should match with your thoughts else you will lose the train of thought. This is where typing is a better medium.

…Keep a pencil and a notebook to take notes and capture the flash of insights whereas use a keyboard to communicate your ideas.

According to Thompson, blogging is a great way to refine your ideas and thinking. In his book, Smarter Than You Think [10], he writes –

Blogging forces you to write down your arguments and assumptions. This is the single biggest reason to do it, and I think it alone makes it worth it. You have a lot of opinions. I’m sure some of them you hold strongly. Pick one and write it up in a post—I’m sure your opinion will change somewhat, or at least become more nuanced. When you move from your head to “paper,” a lot of the hand-waveyness goes away and you are left to really defend your position to yourself.


One of the disciples of Gautam Buddha once asked him, “Master! what’s the highest form of knowledge?”

Buddha replied, “Self knowledge is the greatest knowledge. Know thyself.”

I am speculating that self knowledge starts with self awareness. And in this journey of self awareness pen is definitely mightier than sword.

The point really is this – “Do you think your life is worth journaling about?” If not then make it worth and then write about it. Or even better, start writing about it and you’ll discover that your experiences are indeed worth journaling about.

If you carve out few hours every week for journaling, you will start discovering its value very soon. So I say, pen is your friend, my friend! Pick up the pen and journal on.

And what could be a better way to start the practice of journaling than the Comments section of this post. 😉

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About the Author

Anshul Khare worked for 12+ years as a Software Architect. He is an avid learner and enjoys reading about human behaviour and multidisciplinary thinking. You can connect with Anshul on Twitter.


  1. “After reading a book, you thought you understood the idea but found it difficult to explain it to others? The idea seemed pretty clear in your head but the moment you had to verbalise it you discovered that either you didn’t have a proper grasp on the idea at the first place or you were unable to explain it in a logical coherent way to a third person.”

    It happened to me a lot of times, where in i used to think at times that its futile to read when i am unable to explain. Now i understood that the left-out task to be fulfilled.. Thanks for the article anshul,

  2. Mohammad Riazuddin says:

    Hi Anshul. Nice writeup. I have always thought of maintaining a Journal, but I just simply hate my handwriting. As a professional analyst, I always start with structuring reports, presentations and questionnaires by jotting them down in notebook, but while journaling I have two problems. 1) again my handwriting 2) It slows down reading processes. I also write (or used to write) poems etc., and strangely writing electronically has never deterred the thought process. In Fact most of my best pieces are written electronically. So do you thing electronically journaling ideas is better (atleast for me) than penning it down, or I should give another honest attempt to maintaining my diary?

    • Anshul Khare says:

      Thanks Mohammad!

      I feel the question about pen vs keyboard is very subjective. You should stick to what works best for you.

      For me, writing with a pencil or pen offers much more fluidity and flexibility although at the cost of speed and convenience. Sometimes an idea appears on the thought screen and by the time I open my laptop, the idea is lost. In such cases I always find a pen a piece of paper more reliable than technology.

      You can start small by spending few minutes a day with a pen and paper and find out if it has something useful for you. Experimenting with new tools and ideas is in itself a great way to discover things.


  3. Hi, I agree with all points in this post. I read many books but I often forget much of what I read. I maintain a blog (see website) where I post reviews of recent books I have read. That helps in jogging my memory. The does not draw in any monetary capital but does give me social capital.

  4. Very useful article. Something I was looking for. Is it a good idea to keep separate journal for topics like decision making / investing / some new skill you are trying to acquire? If i am reading 2 / 3 topics simultaneously it becomes difficult to retain things from each subset by the end of the week.

    • Anshul Khare says:

      Hi Roy,

      Keeping a single journal has the advantage of convenience while writing and it also opens up the possibility of connecting dots and finding analogy between different topics.

      Keeping different journals will make it convenient for you to search and find ideas later.

      You can experiment and figure out what works best for you.


  5. Interesting piece. I agree with you vishal on every word you wrot on journling. I practice reading(more) & writing(less) almost everyday. The challenge I feel is when we get comfortable with the situations and blame the outside world in our writings. I have lied to myself in my writings and kept myself one step up taking it as a way to boost my self-confidence. However, I have worked hard over last 5 years to be as honest as possible to myself and act on the situations rather than write all ill about it.
    Keep up the good work. Thanks again

  6. Thanks a lot Anshul. Frankly speaking, it’s hard to find out a pen in entire house. Ah can’t remember when I bought a pen last time. But believe me it’s not the same all along, somehow the techno manifestation drenched out the pure thoughts and gift us the seed of indolence. I am so shameless even after realizing the fact also stroking the keys of computer instead of holding a pen. This is the high time to break the shackles and channelize the long ignored waves. Thanks a lot Anshul.

  7. What a delight to read this piece.
    I always made notes of idea i found new and worth remembering whenever i read. And i read them every month. Such a refreshing experience to read your the words of masters.
    Now after reading today’s article i will take extra efforts and make it habbit of writing down extentively

  8. I agree with ‘pen and paper’. Most of the times, I am not able to write beyond 20 words on my computer.

  9. Delightful piece of information. We may know the meaning of journaling but hardly practice it. Hopefully this article will prompt me to take out some time for what Vishal said ‘Journaling’

  10. Kunal Seth says:

    Hello Anshul, I am really fortunate as from past few days I was searching ways to remember what I read or learn and your article proves to be a boon. It’s actually very difficulty to read so much and then remember it. Thank you so much!! you have really well articulated all the aspects and benefits of journaling thoughts. I strongly believe that your thoughts are the foundation of your existence and controlling them is difficult but giving them direction is possible. 🙂 🙂

  11. Most of us have once or more started the process but very few have persevered
    Only by constant practising for about a month can anyone realize the benefits of Journaling
    Would recommend everyone to listen to Jim Rohn the motivational guru about benefits of using Journal.

  12. Sachin Panpaliya says:

    Thanks Anshul, great post. You are right, Journaling help to build thinking process. While reading your article I just write down whatever in my mind and I was amazed that I written a half page. In investing Jornaling is really helpful…
    the three questions of Michael Mauboussing, “is whenever you are making a consequential decision, write down what you decided, why you decided as you did, what you expect to happen, and if you’re so inclined, how you feel mentally and physically.”
    If u answer above question and make practice of journaling, over the period of time it will help u to improve your decision making process. And I feel Journaling also help to develop new connection between your neurons.
    Now I start Journaling and that credit goes to you.
    Thanks once again! 🙂

  13. R K Chandrashekar says:

    Dear Anshul
    Very useful advice and timely too! When the mind is without fear, the pen runs riot( due apologies to Tagore). While. I don’t maintain a journal, which I should, I have off late, my own blog on wordpress, primarily for the large extended family. I am the self styled half baked family historian, given my gargantuan memory, regaling them with stories of a bygone era–mostly from the 50’s and 60’s!!

  14. An excellent article. It brings out very lucidly an extremely effective method of channelising your thoughts. There’s no doubt that its one of the most difficult things to do. A galloping mind is hard to control and slow down. The best example is when one starts channel surfing on TV. The mind just goes round in circles. While the reasonable self knows that its stuck in a self defeating loop which is just wearing down the mind, it doesn’t know any drill to extricate itself. This post by Anshul brings out the whole mechanics of the extrication maneuver through journalling. The productivity in West can be ascribed to this one habit. Speak less, write more. While bring immediate and personal, speech is largely ephemeral and inexact. Writing can be revisited and intrinsically demands discipline, syntax and coherence.

  15. Arulselvan P says:

    Hi Anshul,
    Thank you for sharing this information. Though I have been reading a lot, but since I have not been practicing writing, I think this information is going to help me a lot. I have started the practice of writing. Thanks for sharing this insight.
    -Regards, Arulselvan.

  16. Kulbir Lamba says:

    As usual being a regular visitor of “”, i was stuck with the title of this post and decided that will read it with cool head i.e not in office, but at home with peace of mind..and will say that the Content was much more attractive than the Title, but to bring the reader till the end of a piece of information you need some good title and flow of thoughts..
    Wonderful piece of information Anshul..

    And it is a coincidence that i have come across the concept of “Narrative Fallacy/ Hindsight Bias” today only in the book “More Than you Know”..So the repetition of learning at two Great places (Book referred & Safalniveshak site) has definitely made a mark on my plan for starting “Journaling”..

    Thanks and Warm Regards

    Kulbir Lamba

    • Anshul Khare says:

      Thanks Kulbir!

      Great to know that you’re reading Michael Mauboussin’s book. I have found all his books tremendously useful and full of insights about human behaviour and decision making.

  17. Thanks a lot sir.
    It really give value knowledge to students .
    I really appreciate your efforts.

    With regards

  18. Great post..!!! For those I would like to tell that, this thing works.. I have started journaling in May 2015, just after writing on few thoughts I was blown away by the result.. It immediately uncovers any lacuna in your thinking process, and brings a coherence to the thinking… One more live example of this till of improvement in action is this blog itself.. Look at how this blog is charting new peaks.. My best wishes for Vishal and Anshul.. Keep it up..

  19. Another thing that’s great about this article is that it makes you laugh. It is about something useful but is also is fun. I just grabbed an old notebook and I’m planning to note every investment decision from now on. And comment every article I read. Let’s see what happens.

  20. Raj Thondepu says:

    Very well written article. It occurred to me as well, and as the author mentions, i too prefer a pencil+book combo to jot down and if i am referring to it too often, take a pic of the same with my phone and email it to myself (so not to lose it).
    Doing the same thing for investment decisions makes so much sense , never thought of it. Well analyzed!

  21. Great article and I felt their was gap in my learning and expression. Idea of journaling is the ideal strategy to address these gaps.

    Thanks again

    Also, share an article your top 10 big ideas for life.



  22. Hi Anshul,
    Nice article. I have personal experiences of developing better understanding when I write instead of just reading or thinking. Yet to try out journaling.

  23. Krishnendu Ghosh says:

    Wonderfully written. I agree to the idea of writing, as I personally have experienced better outcomes when trying to give a shape to an idea that had flashed in my mind. Even for daily organizing or prioritizing work, schedules, tasks or even for better planning also, writing down habit works wonders. Kudos to both of you – Vishal and Anshul.

  24. Manish shrivastav says:

    Thanks anshul for sharing such a great idea. I always believed that only reading can’t help you to understand the things in depth bcoz we keep on consuming which is already served before you. Writing habits lead us to the way of indepth of the things which stimulates your brain and you come out with the new thoughts.

    After reading this I have decided to start practicing it every day, however thanks a lot anshul.

    Manish shrivastav

  25. Jasmeet Dang says:

    Hi Sir!

    Beautifully articulated. I thoroughly share your ideas, however i would like to learn from you your ideas of writing in digital diary. Do you write in digital or physical journal. I have been trying to write since few months and the process is irregular. Sometimes i go for physical, sometimes digital and then i quit for sometime. Have you faced problems like that during beginning phase. Also, you have been sharing a lot of your views from sharing excerpts from different books. Is there any hack you have to manage particular topic related ideas at one place.

    • Anshul Khare says:

      Thanks for your comments Jasmeet.

      I practice something called Morning Pages as suggested by Julian Cameron in her book “The Artist’s Way”. I write morning pages with pen/pencil.

      When it comes to composing a blog post, I use my laptop. When I am reading something on laptop, it’s easier to capture the ideas/excerpts in digital format. Sometimes if the idea is too compelling I might write it down in my idea book also. There’s is no hard and fast rule as such.

      Check out this blog post. It has some some useful insights about organizing ideas.

  26. Giving a speech/lecture in front of audience is one step further than journaling and thinking taken together.
    Thinking and Journaling are solo activities involving only head and fingers respectively. Giving a speech is a group activity where each cell of your whole body participates and what you speak becomes part of you

  27. This is one amazing article. Although i had forgotten about it, this eureka moment that writing somehow makes you understand and retains knowledge in your brain came to me during my 10th std board exams. My grandmother always used to tell me write all your answers down, i didn’t know why. I credit this new found technique at that time for getting through engineering later on in my life. I should start this habit now and start journaling like you have suggested.

  28. Great post Anshul! I only recently discovered the brilliant simplicity of Richard Feynman, how the measure of whether we have understood something is if we’re able to successfully explain it to a 5 year old. You’ve expanded the idea to also include journaling as a means to really listen to ourselves. It’s amazing how many answers are within us, just needing us to pay attention.

  29. Radhe Shyam Kothari says:

    Thought provoking Article. Instead practice of what is learnt in this Article generate thoughts and hence impact of this Article is everlasting. Thank you Anshul. Thank you Safalniveshak for the great services.

  30. Ankur Agrawal says:

    Hi, Anshul!

    I also have difficulties in explaining things after reading a book.

    Also, I have seen an interview of Seth Godin in which he says “starting a blog has been one of my best decisions of life” he continues “even if no one read it I would still blog”.

    Because you improve your mind if you keep examining things happening around you.

  31. Great post, just what I needed at this point. I used to write a personal summary of all the books I read in college and early part of my career, but along the way lost that habit. These days we consume lot of information in smaller and frequent bouts and always fail to connect the dots and necessary thinking and curating. So, writing in a journal end of the day to kind of pull it all together and understanding the bigger context certainly help.



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