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Two tips from Tom Hanks and Barack Obama for writing and reading

I’ve been on a kick lately reading about how people work. One of my takeaways so far is everyone that ever created something good did it in the slowest, most purposeful way possible.

The most recent instance was in Barack Obama’s A Promised Land—a good book regardless of your political views—that he says he worked out longhand by writing on a notepad. Writing on a notepad! Why? Because it slows people down and allows time to think. Something I’m sure is helpful when you’re the President of the United States.

Tom Hanks says similarly of working on a typewriter:

He loves typewriters because “they’re brilliant combinations of art and engineering. But art, engineering, and purpose,” he said. “Every machine is as individual as a set of fingerprints. So, every time you type something on a typewriter, it is a one-of-a-kind work of art.”

They’re also almost painfully slow. And because deletions are harder to make than on a computer, each keystroke demands their users think about the words they want to use.

This slowing down is why author David McCullough has written everything he’s even published on a typewriter. Told a computer can go faster, he replies, “I don’t want to go faster. If anything, I want to go slower.”

I’m not likely to switch away from my computer for a typewriter. But I do switch to my iPad for writing because the same multi-tasking limitations that irritate the technorati are also excellent for cognition and reducing distractions.

This “slowest practical method” has value in how we read and concentrate

Ever sit down to read and like me your phone buzzes, or someone asks a question, or there’s a camera alert from the doorbell sensor, or any other silly nonsense? Now twenty minutes older, I’ve read three pages and remember none of it.

We have to remind ourselves that reading is a focused activity.

  • Slow down, if only just for a chapter. It’ll probably only take twenty minutes, if that. Heck, in twenty minutes you can probably read two chapters. Start by leaving your phone in another room.
  • When you sit down, keep a notepad nearby for notes and for all the random ideas and to-dos that pop in your head. This way you can get them out of your head to process later.
  • Skip the Kindle apps on your phone or iPad and use an actual book or a genuine Kindle device. Anything that doesn’t come with a browser and notifications and text messages. If it has emojis built-in, it’s probably not great for cognition.
  • I’m sure someone will fight me on this, but it’s a hill I’m willing to die on: turn off the TV and music with lyrics and anything that pulls chatter into your workspace. This goes for cafés and coffee shops, too. No writer with a National Book Award got it by writing in a noisy Starbucks.

Think in sentences.

This one is more my advice than a president’s or famous actor’s. But you should start thinking in sentences.

Thinking in sentences is something I’ve long done for reading and in my writing. Like any construction project, we work through things in their smallest practical units.

If you’re building a house, individual bricks, like words to a book, matter. But they’re too small by themselves. Occasionally, one is worth some extra attention. But put several together in a row, like words in a sentence, and you have something useful. This makes a sentence the smallest practical unit for reading or writing. Viewed as a sentence, you can decide if the words—or bricks—need revising.

This has another benefit for cognition. By reading a sentence, understanding it, and making note that, “Yep, I got it” before moving on you can start to train your brain to focus. And that focus has significant benefits for your work and day-to-day activities.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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