Going Old School: The Benefits of Paper Notebooks

Recent research shows the benefits of handwritten notes over digital methods. Don’t get me wrong: I love my mobile devices. I would be lost without my synced calendars and task management software. Yet when it comes to taking notes, nothing beats good old pen and paper. While there are a wide variety of fantastic note-taking apps available, and I use several, I’ve found that the cognitive benefits of handwritten notes far outweigh the convenience of their digital counterparts.

Over the past few years, I’ve tested numerous note-taking apps. My reasoning was that it was far more efficient to use a keyboard than pen and paper. But, while I was able to capture more information by typing, I was simply recording it verbatim and not engaging with it, nor committing it to memory. The term for this, according to social psychology researcher Pam Mueller (Princeton) and marketing and psychology professor David Oppenheimer (UCLA), is “non-generative note-taking.”

Benefits of Handwritten Notes

In studying the note-taking habits of students in a classroom setting, Mueller and Oppenheimer found that students who took notes by hand — generative note-taking — developed a stronger conceptual understanding of the information, and thus, they were more successful at applying and integrating the material than those who took notes with laptops. Why? Generative note-taking requires a different type of cognitive processing, which involves “summarizing, paraphrasing and concept mapping.”

In a recently released report, Paper and Productive Learning, Oppenheimer outlined the advantages of using pen and paper for taking notes:

  • Paper helps you to focus. Work that requires focused attention may be better served using paper, which is devoid of distraction. There’s also less chance of screen fatigue, so you can concentrate on materials for long periods of time.
  • Paper helps you to remember more. Writing notes by hand in meetings or at seminars forces you to engage with the information, synthesize it and then repurpose it. This increases how much you remember and how effectively you can apply it.
  • Paper helps you avoid making mistakes. When you use paper, you tend to adopt a more concrete mindset (i.e., thinking about how things are done). This is why many people like to print documents for proofreading. It really does help them to catch more typos and grammatical errors.

Integrate Paper Note-taking with Digital Task Management

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I like to take a “best of both worlds” approach to note-taking. I carry a notebook and pen to capture random thoughts, ideas, quick details and tasks while on the go. I prefer small pocket-sized notebooks for the obvious reason that they fit in my pocket. (Pair your pocket notebook with a pocket pen to get in the habit of carrying it with you. For its portability, as well as ability to write in a variety of conditions, I love the Fisher Bullet Space Pen. Also, the shape is awesome and it just feels good in your hand.)

What do I write down?

  • Things to add to my to-do list
  • Random thoughts to flesh out later
  • Ideas for articles
  • Phrases that I hear
  • Things I want to do
  • Names and phone numbers
  • Project outlines
  • General observations

Pocket notebooks can be especially useful at meetings, conferences and networking events. Besides committing key themes and concepts that I hear to paper (and memory), I also like to jot down the names of people that I meet, along with brief notes on what we talked about.

At the end of the day, I transfer calendar items, tasks and contacts to the appropriate apps. I then review and expand on any ideas that I jotted down, and store the info in a note-taking app or in a content-generation tool.

My favorite everyday-carry notebooks are Field Notes and Moleskin Cahier. They’re pocket-sized (3.5 x 5.5 inch), and they don’t have a lot of pages (48 and 64 pages, respectively). Disposable and brief is what makes them appealing.

Many people store their notebooks for years. I don’t. Once I reach the end of a notebook, I go through it and transfer any information that I want to save to an appropriate app, as previously mentioned. Often, there are notes that I feel will trigger more detailed memories in its original, handwritten state. These I will scan and store in Evernote. Once all of the information that I want to save has been transferred, I shred the notebook and start a new one.

The benefit of a pocket-sized notebook is that you can carry it with you everywhere. You never know when an idea will hit or the solution to a problem that you’ve been noodling will surface. Getting it down on paper immediately will help to preserve your ideas (you may think that you’ll remember later, but chances are, you won’t), and will keep you from getting distracted from the task at hand.

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I’m a 15-year veteran of working remotely. My very first editorial staff positions were in typical corporate cube farms, which I found to be a soul-crushing experience. I began relentlessly pitching the work-from-home concept to one employer. Eventually (after two years), they gave in and sent me home on a part-time trial basis. Shortly thereafter, I became a full-time remote worker and have never looked back. I firmly believe that the benefits of working remotely far outweigh any disadvantages — and that there are solutions for any obstacle that you might encounter. I'm happy to share what I've learned over the years.