There is no shortage of ways to get smarter, from online courses to thought-provoking podcasts to research-backed study techniques. But most are pretty time and labor intensive. You've got to discover the right resources, sit down and consume them, and practice to cement your knowledge.

Is there a way to get smarter instantly with no special materials?

Actually yes, writes VC Morgan Housel on his firm's blog recently. All you need is your brain, a pen or a keyboard, and a few minutes of your day.

Even if you've never harbored literary ambitions and generally pen nothing longer than a shopping list, you need to make time in your schedule for writing, Housel argues. That's not because writing is a killer career skill, an powerful means of persuading others, and a scientifically validated stress buster (though it is all of those things), but because writing helps you sort through your own knowledge, making your instantly smarter.

Turning intuition into knowledge

"Everyone is full of ideas they're not aware of," Housel claims. "They're gut feelings. Intuitions. You use them a dozen times a day. But you'd shrug your shoulders if someone asked why. How you react to career risk. Why you invest the way you do. Why you like some people and question others. We're all brimming with opinions on these topics that we may never discuss, even with ourselves. Like phantom intelligence."

Writing, he continues, is a great way to bring that implicit knowledge out into the open, to question and codify it so that it's more useful to you.

"Intuition is strong enough to put these ideas into practice. But intuition isn't a tool; it's a safety net at best, and is more often the fuel of biased decisions. Turning gut feelings into tools means understanding their origin, limits, and how they interact with other ideas. Which requires turning them into words. And writing is the best way to do that," he asserts.

It's a truth that any professor would agree with. As a former teacher myself, I know educators don't just assign term papers to torture students or even to gauge their learning. They assign them because grappling with ideas in order to shape them into a compelling paper forces students to think harder, clarifying their knowledge and helping them remember it for longer-term use.

That's why it's sign of a good paper if you need to go back and rewrite the introduction of a paper after you finish the conclusion -- it means the writing it taught you something.

How to get started with writing

The case for writing as a powerful thinking tool is powerful, but getting started can still be daunting. How do you overcome your anxiety and start a writing habit? First, forget about style. Unless you have an audience in mind, finding the perfect words really doesn't matter. Nor does the occasional typo.

Then, get over the worry that you don't have anything to write about. Writing, as Housel explains in his excellent post, has a way of generating its own ideas. You just need to start. So select questions to write about that help you unearth your "phantom knowledge," revealing both hidden strengths and (sometimes uncomfortably) hidden weaknesses.

Various prompts and systems exist, but Housel offers his own writing prompt suggestions for the career minded.

  • What is your edge over competitors?
  • How do you react to unforeseen risk?

  • What have you changed your mind about recently?

  • What part of your job are you not good at?

Whatever method you use to get started, the key takeaway is dead simple -- just write. "A journal. A business manifesto. An investment plan. You don't have to publish it. It's the process that matters. You'll uncover so much you never knew," concludes Housel.