Typing for output. Handwriting for recall

I discovered something during my last attempt to computerize my to-do lists: When I write something by hand, I’m more likely to remember it, and remember more about it, than if I’d typed it. When I moved to the iPad and Omnifocus for GTD, I immediately felt disconnected from my work. I didn’t feel like I was seeing the whole picture, and that there were loose ends that weren’t being taken care of.

While some of it had to do with the way the software works, and the cracks that items can fall into with some combinations of settings, I determined that a lot of it had to do with the view of the reminder not matching my memory of the note when I made it. This created a feeling that the reminder wasn’t quite right.

When I write a note, I remember what else was on the page, the ink color, etc. When I see the reminder later it looks familiar because it looks like it did when I wrote it. In Omnifocus, what’s on the screen when you write a task item is totally different than the many ways you might look at it later. The rest of the cues aren’t there so it seems like a counterfeit. This created a bit of dissonance.

I might have gotten used to this in time, but a few missed items is all it takes to ruin a day (or a week, or a month) so I went back to paper.

This would be a good place to note that the folks at Omni were more than happy to give me a refund, per their guarantee on their site – you have 30 days to try the app or your money back. Since it was $40, that was nice.

Typing is better for writing

Handwriting works better for things like notes and reminders, but for production it’s different. I type faster than I write, like most people. When I know what I want to say (mostly) and need to get it down on paper, typing is the way to go. I’ve drafted a few blog posts in pen and pencil, and it’s ok, but it’s faster for me to do it on the computer. I think I’m also convinced that freewriting is also better done on the computer, because it’s both faster and easier to read. Freewriting encourages speed, which tends to kill some neatness 😉 I need do some more to be sure.

Back to handwriting for ideas

On the other hand, if I’m playing with concepts, brainstorming, or trying to work out a problem then a pen or pencil works better than typing. I don’t know why, but for whatever reason I tend to treat what I’ve typed as being more permanent than what I’ve handwritten. I’m more likely to cross out items and rewrite, or ask rhetorical questions when writing than typing.

Which works better for you?

12 thoughts on “Typing for output. Handwriting for recall

  1. Have you tried typewriters? All of the neatness and legibility of the computer without the distractions. I like to type if I’m actually writing. I do tech support, so I deal with computers all the time and am fast with a keyboard.

    but I really prefer writing by hand, because you can see the emotion in the words in a way that you can’t through a digital method. (You can put some emotion into the typewritten word if you hit the keys hard enough!) I seem to be able to get my thoughts down quicker when I write, as I have a tendency to correct my spelling as I go when I’m using a keyboard. I think that computers tend to encourage perfectionism, in a way that other forms of expression don’t.


    1. Hi Teri,

      I definitely agree that computers encourage editing and correction way more than handwriting does. For some kinds of writing that is good, for others it’s bad.

      I don’t have a typewriter, but I remember using one in high school. I think that might be worth playing with.


  2. I heard this in a sales seminar once, and I don’t recall where the info supposedly came from, but I was told, taking the handwriting/memorization thing one step further, that PRINTING v. writing in script/cursive gives an even better chance of remembering not only the theme of what you’re writing but specific words as well.

    I love to write in notebooks- lists, random thoughts, mostly- but I find that I get lazy with my penmanship, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because I’m on a computer all day typing, not sure. Even hand written letters I’ve sent to people have seen 1st drafts done on my computer, but IMO the time it takes to write a letter to someone adds value to the words. Who doesn’t like receiving a hand written letter?

    Thanks for the great blog, I’m a fan.


    1. Hi Sean – thanks for the comment and kind words.

      A great way to get a response from someone is to send a handwritten letter, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t like receiving them.


  3. I concur with your overall observations, but I think I am going to try to use my hands to even write my next interviews and not the computer, at least for the first drafts.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.


  4. I concur with your observations. I type when I write, either on the computer or on my Alphasmart Neo. I get a faster output of words and once completed, I can click and send it to its destination instantly. However, I’ve gone back to handwriting notes at seminars and in classrooms and I always print my notes. I find that my retention of the information is ten times better that way. I think that embracing paper and pens is a good way to get your writing done.


  5. I agree that writing by hand is better for memory, but I wonder if that doesn’t work AGAINST you for GTD purposes. After all, the whole idea is to get things OUT of your head, right? I haven’t figured out what to do about it.


    1. Excellent point! What I found wasn’t that the extra retention of handwriting that made it work better, but that seeing the reminder and feeling confident that I was getting everything.

      Put another way, using handwriting gave me more confidence in the system I needed to trust in order to forget about things.

      The main purpose of GTD is to allow us to free our minds, and we have to find the system that does that the best.

      It does seem ironic that using the method that promotes retention actually enables the opposite.


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