Working Papers: A Physicist, a Filmmaker, and Their Thinking Tools

Tactile systems help people think.

Richard Feynman, Physicist

“You will have to brace yourselves for this — not because it is difficult to understand, but because it is absolutely ridiculous: All we do is draw little arrows on a piece of paper — that’s all!” Richard Feynman

Annie Murphy Paul, in her book The Extended Mind, writes about Feynman’s pushback when historian Charles Weiner called his notes and sketches a “record” of his work:

“I actually did the work on the paper,” he said.

“Well,” Weiner replied, “the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.”

Feynman wasn’t having it. “No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper. Okay?”

Feynman wasn’t (just) being crotchety. He was defending a view of the act of creation that would be codified four decades later in Andy Clark’s theory of the extended mind. Writing about this very episode, Clark argues that, indeed, “Feynman was actually thinking on the paper. The loop through pen and paper is part of the physical machinery responsible for the shape of the flow of thoughts and ideas that we take, nonetheless, to be distinctively those of Richard Feynman.” (Paul 2021, loc 2842)

Van Neistat, Filmmaker and Artist

Neistat uses a system of post-it notes on sheets of paper, which he folds into quadrants.

The lower left quadrant is always for things he plans to buy. The other three quadrants are dealer’s choice; whatever he feels like making them into, that day.

He saves all of these in three-ring binders, where they function simultaneously as archives, idea bank, work log, active project files, and journal.

To see office supplies in the wild, in his YouTube video below:

  • post-it notes and papers at 0:44

  • three-ring binders at 2:16

Van Neistat’s Post-it Notes, Papers, Three-Ring Binders

Watch the whole thing for references to Cynthia Rowley, Hans Christian Andersen, and opinions about to-do lists that don’t work for me. But they do for him, and they might for you!

Also, I vehemently disapprove of using pencils for lists. I’m relieved to note that he at least crosses stuff out.

I wouldn’t think of sharing this video if he actually erased stuff.

Because it’s for the record, yanno?

h/t Nate Kadlac


REFERENCES

Paul, A.M. (2021) The extended mind: the power of thinking outside the brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle edition.

My To-Do List Philosophy (2022). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lG1DaoJkuBw (Accessed: 3 August 2022).

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