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The Value of Preserving Our Thoughts

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert A. Hunter
October 23, 2021

As we contemplate our personal thinking, many of us realize that our minds are often filled with chatter. We are constantly having conversations with ourselves. We often wish we could clear our minds and throw out the unwanted noise in our brains. But creating a vacuum in our heads cannot be the solution. Vacuums are not sustainable.

Here are some great suggestions for replacing unwanted thoughts or emptiness with good, enriching mind matter—information we don’t want to ignore.

Dr. Marcia Reynolds, a widely respected psychologist, recommends the practice of curiosity. She tells us to, “Enter conversations and situations wanting to learn more than we already know. Seeking to see a broader picture or to find something new about the person we are with will help us see fresh ways to deal with challenges.”

A very good way to capture and retain the treasures we find through our adventures of curiosity is to write them down.

Dr. John Schwiebert, English professor at Weber State University, teaches his students to improve the use of their time by offering a Note Taking, Thinking and Writing Strategy at the beginning of each semester.

This class assignment grew out of a personal habit (he calls it an addiction) of his. He carries with him a small notepad or, “Commonplace book,” at all times. He records passing thoughts, impressions, observations and any memorable quotations read or overheard.

Dr. Schwiebert notes, “Several years ago I realized I was reading and ingesting a lot of information but largely ignoring my own thoughts. I concluded that…information gathering should proceed alongside a practice of paying attention to and recording what I think.”

These small notebooks can be carried in a shirt pocket, in a jeans pocket, in a gym bag, on a bicycle—almost anywhere but the swimming pool or shower. It truly is possible to have a notebook handy at all times. And they’re inexpensive. Most dollar stores retail them for as little as 25 cents each. People who prefer making notes in their cell phones may accomplish the same thing.

“Many of our best ideas seem to come when we are away from the workspace and not trying to think—on walks, doing dishes, standing in lines, getting up to cross the room, etc.,” notes the professor.

He suggests that as notebooks are filled, their contents may be transferred to a larger, more organized notebook or into electronic files. He tells us that our notes can be used for pleasurable rereading, to jumpstart additional thinking or writing or as a center of energy from which to create a larger piece of writing such as an essay, poem, story or a professional issue paper.

“By faithfully recording, collecting and re-reading your passing thoughts over weeks, months and years, you can articulate a personal story, which—since it is unforced—will tend also to be universal, interesting to others, and shareable,” says Dr. Schwiebert.

He tells of the example of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who spent years collecting ideas in notebooks—likely composition books (eventually filling over 250 volumes). “Emerson was later able to compose most of his lectures and essays simply by mining, combining and editing materials already present (and indexed) in his notes,” the professor reports.

Consistent journaling also can play a major role in our lives. For the past 20 years, since learning this concept from Dr. Schwiebert, I have been introducing it to my own students every semester. One of my former students, Representative Ryan Wilcox of the Utah State Legislature, writes:

“Journaling allows me to organize my thoughts, to consider the experiences of my life, and to actually learn from them—good and bad. That process is the key. For me, it is the difference between aimless wandering and intentional living.”

The Note Taking, Thinking and Writing Strategy is one more tool we can put into practice to help us not only in the pursuit of improving our lives, but also in providing an alternative to wasted time and harmful thinking.

Currently Weber State University is practicing an emphatic renewal of the theme Writing Across the Curriculum.

This initiative is a reminder that writing is critical, not just on campus, but also personally and among individuals and organizations in the larger community, for without the written words of the past—and even the present—we would have a dearth of educational documents, religious scriptures, lessons from history, knowledge of our ancestors, great music, great poetry and great literature.

Who knows what positive legacy can come from clearing our minds and writing our own words—recording our creative thoughts, our dreams, our experiences and our knowledge—to share with one another and with those who are to follow?

We must write. We must preserve our thoughts in order to enrich ourselves and others.


Author: Robert A. Hunter is a longtime Utah political and human services leader who also teaches Leadership and Political Life at Weber State University.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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