Yes, I know. You’re looking at me thinking I’m some kind of luddite. Here we are, sitting in a meeting and you’ve got your tablet out and I’ve got my pen and paper.
Yes, I work with software, databases, and data visualization, and therefore I should be technologically adept. I am. I also enjoy reaping the benefits that come from writing notes by hand, including greater levels of attention and retention.
I invite you, dear colleague, to keep typing.
For the rest of you folks who also keep notes by hand, or are thinking about switching, and are thinking about how, here are some observations I’ve made over time.
There are a couple major ways to organize paper:
The vision of carrying a portfolio or slim briefcase filled with file folders and a few legal pads. This is a very flexible system, but there’s a lot of carry. Sometimes just a legal pad or portfolio will do.
- Easier to file
- Easier to scan into Evernote
- Irrelevant pages easily skipped
- Change paper at any time – lined, unlined, fancy, cheap, etc.
- Really awesome paper is available
- Hard to carry in small format
- Not many folders/portfolios handle a large stack well
- Easier to lose a page
I’m always attracted to simplicity, and one notebook is pretty simple. I’ve never made this work for me, at least not for everything I need, but I do still keep one at work and use it for some note taking.
- Everything is in the notebook
- Still scannable using the Evernote app, particularly if done every day. Tedious if a lot needs to be done – no auto feed unless you cut the pages out.
- Nothing gets lost, no obligation to file anything
- Not easy to file – tear out a page, or make a copy
- Gathering everything related to one project or subject is not easy.
What works for me
I like a legal pad or blank sheets for free writing, working out problems, or noodling on an idea. I also use loose sheets for implementing David Allen’s Getting Things Done system.
I use a notebook for business journaling and some note taking. It’s easy to carry the notebook, and most meetings I don’t write much except a few action items. I know that if I keep things there I can find them later, which makes it comfortable in a way.
Evernote adds search ability
Sometimes I feel a sense of obligation to stick with one method or the other – have only one method – consistency is the hobgoblin and all. I’m finding that Evernote relieves any angst about which to use. When I put things into Evernote I know I can find them later if I look for them. When I remember to put them in Evernote!
It sounds great, but it’s not always as good as I thought it would be. The other day I was looking for an old project and searched Evernote. I’d scanned in my handwritten project list, so it should have been easily found but nothing was turning up. I found it, by hand, but Evernote didn’t.
Search ability isn’t everything
Putting things in a better system for searching gives the impression that all is secure, but it’s a false impression. Having things easy to find is only of value when I think to look for them. What about when I don’t?
Sometimes I don’t think to look for important things. I’ve forgotten them. Having them buried in some database doesn’t help that.
Right Place/Right Time As Critical As Search
Sometimes having a piece of paper in the right place wins over search. When I look in the file folder, there it is. This particularly true for subjects that I visit only occasionally, like strategy, ideas for the future, etc. I might fill a sheet with far out thoughts and ideas that don’t address any immediate issue. In the file it goes until I need to tap the well for new ideas. This isn’t the same for a notebook, where I’d have to be paging through in order to find it.
These notes are like stashing mad money in my wallet. When I need some ideas or inspiration, I check a file and find all sorts of things I’d forgotten about.
In theory I could put all the right keywords on it but words like strategy, idea, and innovation get used so much that I don’t think it would be workable.
Keeping notes vs curation
It’s tempting to go too far in thinking about business notes. To feel like everything has to be easily found, indexed and at one’s fingertips. Most of the time most of the notes I keep serve no one including me, and it’s pretty rare that a serious decision or action hinges on a note of mine.
The notes are for me to help me work better and they do. To do that they don’t need to have Google-like efficiency. Half the value comes from writing the notes in the first place.