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Why You Remember Things Better When You Write Them Down

A woman sitting at a table, her pen poised over a journal.
GaudiLab/Shutterstock

If you’re trying to stay organized, you don’t have to look much further than an app store. There are countless tools designed to help you remember the important things in life. But what if the best way is to simply write it down?

Research (as we’ll cover below) suggests this is the case. While each person has her own preferred method for writing notes and to-do lists, your brain holds onto information better after you’ve written it down. That’s a pretty good incentive for going old-school with a journal or day planner.

But why does writing things by hand affect your brain that way?

Why Your Brain Loves Pen and Paper

When you type, you use your fine motor skills in a more limited way than when you write by hand. Using a pen and paper is a deeper sensory experience than touching a keyboard. Since you’re crafting each letter by hand, it requires more dexterity to write with a pen than it does to type.

Things get interesting when you look at the impact this difference has on your brain. Handwriting’s combination of motor skills, touch sensation, and visual perception actually reinforces the natural learning process.

Researchers at the Norwegian Center for Learning Environment and Behavioural Research in Education found that reading handwritten text activates different parts of the brain than reading typed text.

Your memory of handwritten words is tied to the movements required to make each letter. This might be what helps the memory of what we’ve written hang around in our brains a bit longer. Meanwhile, pressing buttons on a keyboard activates fewer areas of the brain, so we forget what we’ve typed faster.

This makes perfect sense when you think about how humans first evolved the ability to read and write. The process was highly connected to physical touch as, for thousands of years, handwriting involved carving symbols into rock or pressing them into clay. Our minds and bodies are primed for this kind of physical interaction with the world. But typing is a far cry from creating the shape of each individual letter by hand.

So, when you write by hand, you actually give your brain’s encoding process a boost. Encoding refers to the process of sending information to your brain’s hippocampus, where the decision is made to either store the information long-term or let it go. If you write something by hand, all that complex sensory information increases the chances the knowledge will be stored for later.

In short, writing by hand forces your brain to process information in a more detailed way, which helps you successfully load that information into your memory.

What Should You Write Down, and When?

To reap these benefits, all you need to do is write things down by hand more often. That doesn’t mean you have to write down everything, though—that would get exhausting.

Instead, strategize with these tips to help you remember what you really need.

Keep a To-Do List

A woman's hand writing in a notebook.
GaudiLab/Shutterstock

We suggest you start by handwriting your to-do list for the day, week, or month. This simple strategy allows you to test out the benefits of handwriting notes.

You can back up your list on your phone’s calendar if you want. Soon, though, you might find you don’t even need those notifications anymore.

Another benefit of handwriting your to-do list is not being distracted by a constant barrage of phone notifications and reminders.

Jot Down Your Goals

Another great way to test out this idea is to write down your goals. Having a written list of things you want to accomplish makes them feel more real, and prioritizes them in your brain.

This little memory boost might make it easier to take the necessary steps to achieve those dreams.

Just the Essentials

When you type your notes, it’s easy to include more info than you need. Because handwriting takes longer, it forces you to think critically about what’s really worth jotting down.

This process of critical thinking can boost your memory even further.

Take Notes on Podcasts and Shows

If you listen to a podcast or watch a show to learn something, take a few notes. It’s a great way to ensure the information sticks.

Research suggests college students who take notes by hand remember the information better than those who don’t. That’s because, as we mentioned above, writing by hand is always slower than typing.

Students who handwrite notes can’t write nearly as fast as a lecturer speaks, so they have to distill the information and make wise choices about what to write. This gives them a better working knowledge of the subject—even if they never look at their notes again.

Meanwhile, those who type notes might simply transcribe the lecture, rather than processing the information in their own words.

If you’re trying to learn something new from a show or podcast, you can use this same tactic to boost your memory. Even just writing down a few essential words and ideas can seriously improve your understanding.

Write Down Important Stuff More Than Once

Is something on your list really, really important? Maximize the benefits of handwriting for memory by writing it down a couple of times.

Writing down important things right before you go to sleep might also help you retain that information better.

Check Your Notes

When you handwrite important notes, you often find you remember them without ever reading them again. However, another benefit of this tactic is the information is always right there when you need it.

As we mentioned above, even reading handwritten text involves more parts of your brain than reading typed text. So, rereading your notes can also boost your memory.

Of course, you can download all the apps and programs you want to help you keep track of tasks, ideas, and information.

However, handwriting a few of your notes is so fast and easy, you’ve nothing to lose by giving it a try. So, pick up a pocket-sized notebook or calendar and try it out!

It might change your life way faster than any hot new app.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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