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When I was in school, I took notes while listening to lectures or studying for exams. I assumed notes were a record of stuff perceived by my senses and processed by my brain. Here’s how I thought the process worked:

  1. My senses sensed.
  2. My brain had thoughts.
  3. My hand wrote them down so I could remember.

Turns out this view was wrong.

Recent findings suggest thinking doesn’t happen exclusively in the brain. Instead, we think with our bodies (including the brain) as they interact with things and other beings in our environments. Notes aren’t so much a record of thinking as they are part of where thinking happens.

As you put lines down on paper or type into an app, the paper and app become extensions of your mind. You think differently as you perceive ideas as tangible things. (For a clear explanation of the science behind this, see The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul.1)

This finding is exciting since it implies you can improve your thinking by changing where you think. Your choice of tools, collaborators, and location affects your thinking abilities.

Consider a carpenter’s workshop. The quality of whatever the carpenter makes depends on their know-how and skill, but also on the tools and materials available around them.

A master carpenter does things in specific sequences and organizes tools and materials to support those sequences. The carpenter will keep the place clean and tidy, which takes time and effort beyond “working the wood” but pays off in increased efficiency and effectiveness.

The upshot: a beautiful wooden cabinet or chair isn’t produced solely by an individual or a particular tool. Instead, it’s made by an individual plus their environment — a space configured in a particular way with a particular set of tools and materials organized in a particular way.

In summary, when looking for the thing that makes the thing, you can’t point to a single tool, practice, or individual; you must think in terms of a system.

So, too, with your thinking practice. There’s more to learning and creating than writing down thoughts in a notebook: you must approach such tools as part of a system that includes several other tools and practices that will allow you to think and work differently.

The whole influences outcomes more than any individual part. Once you understand that, you can tweak components to support the whole more effectively. With that in mind, here are five tips that can make a big difference in your thinking.

Set aside dedicated thinking “places”

I use “places” in quotes because this doesn’t have to be a physical space; it can be a mental place you access by putting on headphones and immersing yourself in your notebook. You can do this in your office, on an airplane, or — if you’re lucky — lounging by the pool. With the right “thinking tools” at hand, any place can become a thinking place.

Cut down distractions

That said, it’s hard to go to your thinking place when you’re surrounded by distractions. Loud noises or colorful, fast-moving objects in your peripheral vision can wreck your ability to focus. You need to set aside time to think — time by yourself, where you have some control over your attention.

Don’t overload your language center

The language center is the part of your nervous system responsible for producing and processing speech. It can’t multitask, as you’ve discovered if you’ve tried to read while listening to someone speak. Save your language circuits for thinking work. (For me, this means avoiding music with vocals — especially if I’m unfamiliar with the lyrics.)

Invest in quality tools

If you observe master craftspeople at work, you’ll see they have a special relationship with their tools. They’ll invest in the best quality they can afford and commit to using them for a long time — often for life. This means spending more money and time on a few, carefully selected tools. Do your research. Speak to other thinkers to understand their systems and avoid chasing after each latest shiny new tool.

Mix it up to keep it fresh

That said, sticking with the same tools and processes for a long time can grow stale. And digital technology advances faster than other fields; there are always interesting new tools on the horizon. It’s ok to experiment once in a while; it helps keep things fresh. Just don’t go overboard, lest you end up doing a bunch of unnecessary meta-work.

Good thinking is essential to good knowledge work. Of course, some preconditions to good thinking aren’t under your control. But you can control your thinking place, and that can make a big difference.

Again, “place” doesn’t just mean where your body is sitting; it also includes the things and people around you, which can either help you think better or distract you. Thinking with intent entails being mindful about where and how thinking happens — and striving to improve it.

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