In Defense of Thinking

I recently came across a Hemingway quote that caught my attention:

“My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.”

It reminded me of a time I used to spend each spring as a young professor, back when my schedule allowed it, giving short talks at so-called “dissertation bootcamp” events. The point of these multi-day affairs was to help graduate students gain some momentum on their doctoral theses. I would stop by to talk about productivity and focus, and when possible, grab a free lunch.

Attending these bootcamps, I was often struck by how much the conversation centered on “writing.” The informal advice passed around was about “getting in your writing hours,” or making sure “to write every day,” or committing to “hit your target word count.”

I always found this somewhat confusing, as my experience with writing — both popular and academic — matched Hemingway’s self-description, in that the actual act of putting words on the page came only after many more hours  spent thinking through what I wanted to say. This contemplation was where the real intellectual action was to be found.

Part of the disconnect, I eventually became convinced, comes from the reality that we’ve lost our familiarity with the concept of “thinking” as a concrete and isolatable activity; something that can be prioritized, and trained, and even cherished as a valuable pursuit in its own right.

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle identified rational contemplation as the highest and best of all  human activities. In The Intellectual Life, Thomistic scholar Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges spends over 200 pages detailing how the serious thinker should organize their process of thinking.

Today, we’re not nearly as comfortable with this most fundamental of activities. We talk a lot more about information — how we can get more of it, how we can spread it faster — than we do its processing. 

We see this in education systems built more around content than training the meta-activity of making sense of content. We see this in a techno-media landscape that emphasizes expression over cogitation, and tribal Sophism over Socratic grappling.

In his 2009 modern classic, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matt Crawford argued that we were overlooking the ennobling nature of skilled manual work. I increasingly believe a similar manifesto could be penned about our lost appreciation of thinking.

There’s a great satisfaction and steadiness in the general application of Hemingway’s advice. We cannot make sense of ourselves or the world around us without putting in the mental cycles necessary to wrestle this frenetic information into useful forms. Thinking — true, hard, energizing thinking — is not yet another healthy activity to add to a long list of such commitments. It’s better understood as a way of life; one that’s become even more radical in an increasingly shallow world.

48 thoughts on “In Defense of Thinking”

  1. I totally agree. As a filmmaker and screenwriter, I always sit and think for hours and hours until I make sense of everything I need to say and the way by which it will be presented. Writing is more or less an act of quickly jotting down what I’ve already created in my head.

    • I love this promotion of thinking. It got me thinking! As a song writer I find the song is often written while im walking and that putting it on paper is just a process of penning the thoughts that came back with me from the walk. Other times I need to sit down, clear my head and let the pen do the thinking for me.

  2. I have come to understand that I need time to process the information I receive. The more I put in my head from work, home, hobbies, and the net – the more I need to slow down information intake and focus on understanding what I have exposed my mind to. The more information, the more information overload. The less time I give my mind space to meditate on a concept or optic, the less I truly understand it from multiple views, leading to an ignorance based on, ironically, too much information.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that if I haven’t spent time thinking and processing during the day, my sleep will be interrupted by the processing process. In other words, I can’t sleep if I don’t think because my brain has to have that time to break down information. If it doesn’t happen in the waking hours, IT WILL HAPPEN AT 4AM.

    Thinking is the way the mind digests what goes into it. You can’t get nutrients by just eating food because the body has to process it for sustenance. The same seems to be the case for the brain. We have to think each thing through to get the best understanding.

    Of course, I could be over-thinking this.

    • Wow I like your explanation. It makes a lot of sense. After spending the whole day consuming all kinds of information through reading, the internet, tv, music and social activities I find it hard to fall asleep most times. This is because I am replaying the events of the day and asking myself questions. It doesn’t even feel intentional because when it’s bedtime I want to sleep. The last thing I want to be thinking about is why the stranger I met on my walk didn’t say I hi back to me etc. I am going to make time for thinking during the day and see how it goes! Hopefully it improves my sleep!

  3. I am gratified by the reference to Sertillanges. He was recommended by one of my professors, and The Intellectual Life has become a yearly read. It deserves to be on the shelf of every student/thinker.

  4. I often find that writing exposes that what I thought (what sounded brilliant in my head) does not measure up. It isn’t brilliant. Writing exposes the flaws in my thinking. Writing has always been a way of discovering me. Long periods of thinking are intertwined with putting a word or two down on the page. As evidenced by how long it took me to write this comment.

    • Your comment is totally on point. Writing can, and does, expose one’s thinking. Conversely, a thing not thought through well isn’t worth writing in the first place.

  5. Cal, I couldn’t agree more that thinking is the key to good writing. But many others have made the argument, with some evidence, the writing IS an instrument of good thinking. I’m confident you are familiar with this idea – that the act of writing something aids in working through what you really want to say. I’m not at all saying that the approach you and Hemingway use – who could disagree with him! – but am rather suggesting that the pure “thinking-then-write” model may not be best for everyone. I know that for me, once I started using the “writing to think” method my own work improved dramatically.

    • This was my thought as well, Susan.
      I have always been an ‘active’ thinker – processing internal thoughts while doing an activity with my hands. As such I always learned, studied, or wrote by writing, drawing, and rewriting over and over again in a cycle of refinement.
      But lately, in an effort to replace industriousness with more idleness, I have enjoyed mulling over a thought in my head before committing it to the keyboard. I can fine-tune, challenge, or excavate a thought while walking or doing the dishes. It feels clearer and more pure to me.

      I am grateful for the post and commentary from others, to direct me to further reading on the topic. I read Cal’s book Deep Work a few years ago and enjoyed it so much.

  6. Well, for many people writing is a way of thinking. The problem for these folks is that they think about writing in terms of product rather than process so they tend to mistake a thinking exercise (first draft) for a final version worth being shared. I have known a few writers who do a lot of thinking first and then pour out a good draft but they are rare. Ann Berthoff wrote some inspiring books on this topic.

    • Hello Kathryn,

      I teach a writing class and I’m going to use your reply in my class. Too few of my students think of writing as simply a means to an end (e.g., need to complete that term paper) and do not fully understand the “process” of writing.

  7. Great article Cal and great comments.
    A powerful fire to turn that thinking into an almost obsession, examining it from every angle possible, and then connecting dots and able to talk about it persuasively, is to somehow get scarred emotionally by it. Getting rejected, fired, cheated on, snubbed, marginalized, etc. A fantastic podcast by ex NBA player Gilbert Arenas goes into this.

  8. Hi Cal,

    Thanks for sharing this invaluable piece of advice. Somehow I didn’t come across this quote prior to reading your newsletter.

    Thinking has taken a back seat in this tech-driven fast paces era. People, who make a living out of thinking, like scientists and writers, are too distracted to put their brains to work.

    I see my professors all day long looking at the screen to manage their ‘administrative’ life, ‘reviewer’ life, ‘teacher’ life, etc. and are left with little to no time to think. I believe, same level of distracting formalities are also invasive in a writer’s life.

    We’re kinda always thinking about the ways to procrastinate thinking.

  9. That’s a useful description–“the meta-activity of making sense of the content.” That’s pretty much the core purpose of a good education.

    Your thoughts on the predominance of information vs. actual thinking brings to mind T.S. Eliot
    “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
    All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
    But nearness to death no nearer to God.
    Where is the Life we have lost in living?
    Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
    Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
    (opening stanzas of “Three Choruses from the Rock”)

  10. I appreciate this perspective and, of course, agree that dedicated time to think is incredibly important. But do I think writing is an important way to clarify one’s thoughts. In Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (a book that got me through my comprehensive exam, dissertation proposal and dissertation), Joan Bolker writes about “writing your way in.” This type of writing isn’t focused on productivity and can be enormously helpful.

  11. “Long periods of thinking, short periods of writing” is typical for the top-down writing type. One of its disadvantages is frequent writer’s block. Indeed, Hemingway also used to suffer from it.

    There is also another way of writing — bottom-up — which uses writing as a support for thinking. Here, you would write a lot, just for yourself: to generate ideas, develop arguments, better understand the ideas of others, etc. Writing makes your thinking tangible: you can better recognize gaps and errors in your reasoning, your reflections become more thorough, etc.

    In my courses in scientific writing, I am advising PhD students to write daily about all their research activities in a private research journal. (Privacy is very important here because some people can only then relax and fully focus on the content instead of worrying about the form and possible judgments from others.) Those who implement the advice report already after a week or two greater clarity and faster progress with their research.

    There are many advocates for this bottom-up writing approach, I recommend the work of Peter Elbow, e.g. his book “Writing With Power”.

  12. Wonderful post, Cal! In his METAPHYSICS Aristotle succinctly and nicely says: “The activity of mind is life.”

    Pedantic postscript re Sertillanges: he was a “Thomistic” scholar (a devotee of St. Thomas Aquinas).

    • I fixed the “thomistic” typo earlier today on this version of the article, but alas, too late for the newsletter version. As someone who teaches at a Catholic University, I may be in trouble for that mistake!

      • A fascinating new book on this very topic, what it means to think, is Eric Newstok’s HOW TO THINK LIKE SHAKESPEARE, which is not a scholarly contribution to Shakespeare studies but a reflection on what our impoverished educational culture can learn from the Renaissance approach to education.

        • Thanks for this recommendation. We’ve been having discussions about the university qua university recently: will it look different after covid? Should it? What are essentials and what can be shed to trim the sails, as it were? etc.), and this looks to be tremendously helpful in hashing these ideas out.

  13. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the type of internal self-questioning prompts and other structures which help you make progress during thinking sessions.

  14. “We talk a lot more about information — how we can get more of it, how we can spread it faster — than we do its processing.”

    … And I would add “how we can better organize it”. The current trends in information management tools (aka second brain) also seem to focus more on the relentless accumulation of knowledge than on its processing.

  15. Excellent article. I’m currently on a Colin Wilson re-reading jag, and spending this week (spring break, and thus a sort of “micro-sabbatical” from my professorial duties) returning to Wilson’s fiction. Wilson’s The Mind Parasites and (especially) Philosophers Stone both examine Newportian deep thought with Maslow’s peak experiences to explore the lengths to which human consciousness can lead to excellence and happiness.

  16. I think people feel worried about prescribing “thinking” because it’s an unseen activity. It’s difficult to measure and there aren’t specific physical motions that it’s attached to. Do you have any recommendation for how to provide more structure for the thinking activity.
    Thinking is like walking on a tightrope blindfolded. How can we keep from falling off into distraction and aimless thought?

  17. There is space for both strategies. Sometimes doing my thinking on the page can help me get past a block. I delete the bad parts and expound on the good parts.

  18. Cal,

    Ken Burns has a doc about Hemingway coming out tomorrow (4/5). I’m sure it’s gonna be awesome. I bought the referenced books.

    Your boy, Ryan Holiday, turned me on to Scribd. Such a good platform to get books for cheap.

  19. I find the 24/7 news cycles forces all of us and those who have to produce the news into an irrational and anxious way of being. Knee jerk reactions by pundits, politicians and everyday people are the norm rather than thoughtful contemplation and discourse.

  20. In the same way that food is of no use to our bodies until digested and assimilated into the bloodstream, so information is of no use to our growth until we have assimilated it AND MADE IT OUR OWN.

  21. Interesting article Cal,

    A few points.

    Aristotle existed in a world, as far as I am aware, where pen and paper writing was extremely rare. It was in Plato’s time actually, again as far as I am aware, when putting things to paper started to rise in popularity, and in fact Plato lamented that we would lose our ability to think, which is often juxtaposed with our modern complaints about the ills of technology as an attempt to dismiss them. But your article begs the question, did Plato, and Aristotle have a point, and has the modern experience only furthered this burden of distraction?

    Interestingly, Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardner of thinkwell, have been doling out writing tips and advice for PhD students which advocates for writing a lot (in short frequent bursts). Their argument is, basically, that you need to write, before you know what you want to write, because writing is part of the thinking process. A way of figuring out what you want to say, by reading your thoughts, and then improving and clarifying them.

    They seem to be connected to the same idea as you Cal, that collectively, we’re struggling with our ability to think clearly, while their strategy is practically work through the process of thinking, by harmonising it with getting your thoughts out in front of you, whereas, yours (and Hemmingway’s) is to put the time and effort into training your ability to think clearly and independently.

    An interesting comparison to note.

    • As I heard it, Plato was concerned about losing our ability to remember. Writing has always been used for thinking–that’s why mathematicians use chalkboards. And such temporary means of writing were readily available to the Greeks in Plato’s time. Chalk wasn’t unknown to them (it’s a type of rock), and charcoal sticks were ubiquitous in a culture where light, heat, and cooking all involved flames. If all else failed, there’s always dirt and a stick. The main benefit of paper and paper-like products is their relative permanence. They act as a secondary, external memory, which can store far more information than the average person but at the cost of inconvenience.

  22. The bulk of my writing over the years included reports and writings relating to civic, legal, management, government, poetic and yeah, a stab or two at fiction, fantasy. I read this article with an open mind and quite frankly I love it. It’s like some veil has been lifted (for me at least) relative to committing thoughts to paper.

    I’ll be saving this piece. Thanks!

  23. A thank you both to the author of the original article and all those who posted here. You have made something very clear to me that I vaguely grasped in my 20’s. Having dropped out of college, I returned as a single parent of two young children so a job was essential and always would be. I made a decision to study philosophy despite as far as I could determine, it would do nothing for my job prospects. But, I could only explain to others that I needed to learn to think. Rapid reading for decades, and finding it relative easy to write decently, had left me strangely uneasy that I was skimming the surface of both. I have never regretted my choice of philosophy. Sometimes I write to think and sometimes I think before I write but until now I had not realized why.

  24. Thank you for sharing all these inspiring comments.You will find attached my own perspective on “The Act of Thinking” which has clearly inspired a lot of…thoughts form very talented minds.

  25. While I agree that more introspection or thought without interruption would likely be worthwhile, and probably reduce stress at the same time. However, I found in the past that putting pen to paper, vs. thinking about what I wanted to write, invariably resulted in better results. I’m not sure what the mental process is, but saying that papers or stories “wrote themselves” would not be off the mark.

    Regarding advice to writers, I’m sure you’re aware that a major reason why they are encouraged to put some words to paper every day is because for many of us it’s easiest not to write at all, despite what we may have locked up inside us. Writing on a regular basis is one way to get past that and, in my case, actually write content that wouldn’t happen if I just sat and thought about it. Somewhat analogous to going to exercising every day: Most of us really don’t feel like it, but we feel better when we do.

  26. Count me in the “writing can be a way of thinking” category. I had a boss once instruct me to write SOPs for the various tasks I do at work, so I could delegate them. It was an eye-opening experience. I’m very good at what I do, but I just sort of do it. Sitting down and formally drafting a procedure was difficult. At one point, during one of these exercises, we had multiple 11×17 sheets stitched together into a work flow diagram with about 15 if/then statements.

    The trick–and I’m still working on this–is that what you produce while thinking on paper is not a marketable product. The purpose of the SOP I drafted was to make me think about what the process actually entails and what can be handed off to someone, and to show me some areas where I need to improve. Were I to publish it, even as an internal document for my company, I’d have to put significantly more effort into it.

  27. I don’t write creatively much, but this fits my activity as a computer programmer. I sit and stare at the wall for hours, and often more hours. When I worked in an office I often got up and wandered the halls, head down, eyes only partly open. At some point, after a while, I had it—I knew how I wanted to do it (whatever “it” was at the moment). I’d look around, see where I was, and get back to my desk and start writing. Nowadays I work remotely, but the process is similar: I usually sit lost in thought for a long time before I start actually coding.

    The analogy I often use is drilling through a wall. The drilling can go incredibly fast (when you’re going through drywall) or seem to make no progress at all (when you hit a layer of steel). But none of that time is wasted, even when you seem to be at a standstill. Likewise when I’m staring at the wall, apparently doing nothing…well, that’s work, too.

  28. Some interesting thoughts above. But they seem to be caught between thinking unto itself and thinking by prop, like with writing.

    In Socrates’ time deep thought seems to have been by way of dialogue between people. It’s hard to imagine, but not improbable, that the depth of thought Socrates achieved was by way of singular, meditative thought. Perhaps that is to what Cal is speaking. Perhaps that was what Plato was preserving with his dialogues. But surely Plato and Aristotle saw the value to both dialogue and writing as extensions of thought, the latter allowing the thinker to tinker and arrange her/his thought.

    So when do you do deep thought: in meditation, in the shower, on a walk? Are you talking to yourself, debating with a straw man, an opponent? In silence? In under-your-breath or loud verbal diarrhea?

    What about modes of thought, as Harold Gardner alludes to in his discussion of genius and multiple intelligences? Someone above spoke of math as thought. There is also thought by means of art, dance, sport, etc. And what of deep thought about thought, like that of Jiddu Krishnamurti, where thought ends up being a self-serving mechanism unto itself — that if observed deeply ends in exquisite silence. In the Buddhist/Zen way of thinking, that’s the point of no thought or quiet, empty mind.

    There is an interesting conversation here. I myself have come to use the bletch method of writing – get it all out, then refine, refine, refine. It wasn’t the way I did my master’s thesis. But I think Cal is trying to push the conversation: to where thinking, deep thinking, is a skill we need to cultivate — with its contents in all its contexts — in all its modes — and push it to the “peak performance” levels of Socrates, and Shakespeare, and Einstein, and Schrodinger, and Kahneman, and Picasso, and Magritte, and Gretsky, and Tiger, and LeBron, and many, many unnamed others you others will surely champion.

  29. “We see this in a techno-media landscape that emphasizes expression over cogitation, and tribal Sophism over Socratic grappling.” What does this mean?
    It’s not your fault. You’re surrounded by too many academics I guess.

    • Tribal sophism is when you work backwards from the goal of defending whatever it is your tribe already believes. Socratic grappling, by contrast, would have you clash your beliefs against other arguments in the hope of further refining your understanding of what is true.

      Twitter is very sophist. Trying to dunk on your opponents while being careful to never say anything that could give them any ground for their views.


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