Introducing: The Hand-Copying Exercise

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Inspirational quotes are everywhere these days.

People take a line from someone famous, slap it on top of a beautiful photograph, and share it all over social media.

I hate them.

For example, you might see a photo with this quote from George Bernard Shaw…

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

Don’t you feel good after reading it? Doesn’t it sound so uplifting and motivating? Don’t you now want to go follow your dreams?

Now, don’t get me wrong…

It is actually a profound quote if you stop and think about it.

If you were to read it a few more times – and spend the next 5 minutes considering how it directly applies to you – it could change your life.

But that’s exactly the problem with inspirational quotes…

Hardly anyone takes the time for that deep reflection.

Look, reading a quote and feeling “inspired” for a few seconds does NOTHING for you. Sharing a quote with your friends and just going on with your day doesn’t change anything about your life.

The truth is, internalizing real wisdom takes time. It takes reflection and contemplation. We have to think about it. We have to claim it for our own.

Is this hard? No doubt.

But it’s worth it.

Thankfully, there are tools that can help with the process. And one helpful exercise we’ve found is something called hand-copying.

On the surface, it’s incredibly simple.

Just use a pen and a piece of paper and copy a quote or passage into your own handwriting.

That’s it.

Yet, this can be life-changing if you let it.

See, when hand-copying a passage, your brain absorbs it in a totally different way than just reading it…

You see the passage in a clearer light. You notice ways to directly apply it in your own life. And you’re more likely to remember it later.

And that makes hand-copying a great practice for internalizing the wisdom of great teachers, writers, and heroes.

Now, we didn’t invent this practice ourselves. In fact…

Hand-Copying Has a Long History

Schools in the 18th and 19th centuries used it to teach kids the mechanics of great writing.

Fiction writer Jack London (author of The Call of the Wild) spent weeks copying the works of Rudyard Kipling out by hand.

And legendary copywriter, Gary Halbert, advised new writers to learn the rhythm and flow of great copy by hand-copying winning sales letters.

It’s not just people looking to improve their writing who have used this either…

In the Hebrew Scriptures, kings were commanded to handwrite a copy of the Torah so they might “carefully observe all the words of the law."1


In the Buddhist tradition, transcribing the sutras and teachings of The Buddha is considered to be a form of meditation and contemplation.


Why Does Hand-Copying Work?

Well, there are two main reasons.

First, it makes you slow down.

You may be able to read a sentence in a couple seconds. But it takes at least 20 times longer to write it out by hand.

The simple act of slowing down forces you to pay more attention. To notice the details. To ponder the meaning of the passage. To actually reflect on it.

Second, hand-copying engages multiple parts of your brain at the same time.

This isn’t just a theory. Numerous studies have proven how it enhances brain activity2, improves your memory3, and makes you more creative4.

In other words, you’re going to get more out of it than you would if you were to just read the passage really s-l-o-w-l-y.

OK, now…

How Do You Actually Do This Practice?

It’s very straightforward.

Step 1: Find a piece of paper.

Step 2: Find a pen. Colin and I are crazy people who like the feel of “old-school” fountain pens. But really, a common ballpoint pen is just perfect.

Step 3: Read the passage out loud to yourself once through.

Step 4: Transcribe the entire passage onto your own handwriting.

That’s it.

It’s simple. It’s might feel a bit weird at first. But it’s powerful if you’re open to it.

And if you want, you can tape the completed passage up on the wall above your desk so you can keep meditating on the passage throughout the week.

Or, if it helps you get more out of the exercise, make a sketch or add some color.

The key thing though is to avoid making this a “chore” or “production”. Keep things light and relaxed.

In the end, it’s about the reflection. It’s about actually internalizing the wisdom the passage has to offer.

So go try it out.

I hope it’s as helpful to you as it has been to us.

Oh, and if you’re looking for a passage to get started on, here are some of the recent quotes we’ve copied out…

One Day We Shall Die What (False) Assumptions Are Secretly Running YOUR Life?

  1. Deuteronomy 17:18-20 – “Also it shall be, when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book. […] And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left…" ↩︎

  2. Researchers at Indiana University found kids who used various hand-printing exercises showed more “enhanced” and “adult-like” brain activity. ↩︎

  3. A 2008 study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that using pen-and-paper led to “stronger and longer-lasting retention”. Or to put it in layman’s terms… it improves your memory. ↩︎

  4. And yet another study at the University of Washington found that handwriting ideas increases creativity and boosts your ability to develop new ideas. ↩︎

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