Getting the Stuff Out of Your Head!

Have you ever experienced overwhelm? You know, it’s that feeling when you have too much to do, with too little time on your hands, and you simply don’t know where or how to begin. Yes, I’m sure we’ve all been there at one time or another.

Just for a moment, I want you to think back to a time when you felt absolutely overwhelmed, and ask yourself:

  • What was it about that situation that overwhelmed me?
  • How did I deal with the circumstances at the time?
  • Did I successfully manage to overcome my feelings of overwhelm or not?

What you will often find, is that you managed to overcome your feelings of overwhelm because you did one or more of the following things:

How about a time when you were dealing with a difficult problem? How did you overcome it? What techniques did you use?

No matter what technique you might have used to deal with your problem or to eliminate the feelings of overwhelm, would I be wrong to assume that you were most effective when you took things out of your head and clarified them visually on paper, on a whiteboard, or on the computer?

If the answer is YES, then that is in essence where the power of visual thinking lies.

Why We Think Better on Paper

There are a variety of reasons why we tend to think better on paper. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s look at four of them in a little detail.

Limitations of Short-term Memory

The first reason comes down to the fact that we have a very limited capacity for short-term memory storage. In fact, in most instances our short-term memory can only hold about seven bits of information and for no more than 20 to 30 seconds at a time. We can of course improve our short-term memory by chunking data together into relevant categories or groups, or by using existing knowledge to form links and associations with the information under investigation.

The reality is, that thinking visually on paper allows you to capture information quickly and easily without needing to rely on your memory. In fact, thinking visually on paper doesn’t limit you to only seven bits of information — allowing you to add as much or as little detail as possible.

Breaking Data Down into Parts

The second reason explaining why we think better on paper, comes down to the fact that we are better able to break the data down into smaller chunks or groups — allowing us to process and make sense of the information far more effectively.

Because of the limitations of our short-term memory, it’s difficult to work with large amounts of data at one time in our heads. However, on paper, we have an almost unlimited amount of capacity to capture and play with this information any way we see fit with far less risk of running into overwhelm.

Connecting Pieces of the Puzzle

The third reason explaining why we think better on paper, comes down to our capacity for creative and free association.

There is no doubt that we create associations in our heads all the time throughout the day. For instance, we see a problem and immediately connect it with what we already know and are familiar with. However, many times these associations are fuzzy and unclear because they remain in our heads. It’s not until the moment you start working with the information or problem on paper, that you begin capturing and connecting all the relevant pieces together. This is where mind maps and other visual thinking tools come into the picture.

Playing with Data

Finally, we think better on paper, because the act of drawing pictures or jotting down information allows us the freedom to play with the data. The act of playing relaxes your body and mind, allowing you to think more flexibly and gain more clarity about the information you are working with.

Geniuses Make their Thoughts Visible

In conclusion, I think it’s important to note that geniuses spanning across culture and time all have one common habit in mind. That habit comes down to their capacity to visualize their thoughts and ideas on paper. Leonardo daVinci did it, Galileo did it, and Einstein did it, Edison did it, Darwin did it, and Freud did it. If they did it, so can you.

Could visual thinking lead us down the path to genius? Let’s find out within the next post.


Everything you read here is part of ongoing research and experimentation within the visual thinking arena. The goal is to create a comprehensive framework for visual thinking that encapsulates creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills. Your comments, ideas and suggestions are most welcome.