In the late-90s, Palm Pilots were hailed as the ultimate productivity tool. It had it all — well, except a phone. Then, the smartphone arrived, of course, and drove Palm to extinction. It became all about the iPhone.
Since then, I’ve leaned on the phone and laptop to organize my time, schedule and to-do lists. But I keeping up, coordinating, syncing and dealing with those devices and apps was a chore. Mishaps and wrinkles aside, I dealt with crashes, lost data and apps falling off the map in terms of updates.
Navigating all the options gave me a headache, too. Events, dates and tasks fell off the radar because I couldn’t decide where to put it.
Should I use a Google Calendar with e-mail alerts? No — I’m tired of cleaning out my inbox all the time. Should it go in a more visually dynamic app? No — it doesn’t coordinate with other apps I use to gather and sort information.
I had a serious case of what psychologists call “decision fatigue” — when you’re confronted with so many options, you become paralyzed.
Technology didn’t help me organize my time and energy — it made me anxious. I needed something simpler, something less time-consuming. I needed… paper.
So I bought a notebook filled with blank grid paper. On one side, I drew out a weekly calendar — with each day having just enough space for a small list of essential to-do tasks. On the other side, I left blank space for note-taking, doodling and planning.
I told myself if I didn’t like using a paper planner, I could always go back to my iPhone, Google Calendar, Tasks and whatever time-organizing app catches my fancy. But the funny thing is: I never did.
Using paper brought a surprising amount of joy back to my life. The advantages were practical: having a limited amount of space to write forced me to ruthlessly prioritize tasks. The process of checking my planner every morning created a sense of ritual and structure to my day. And the physical act of writing engaged me more — I remember things better.
A paper planner was unexpectedly fun, too. I would paste or tape interesting articles, images and quotations into my paper planner, turning it into a portable Pinterest-like inspiration board. One day my 7-year-old niece stuck some stickers on the pages, and I liked the sense of whimsy so much I began buying more stickers for it.
My inner child came out in full force. I experimented with using different colored gel ink pens to write with. My planner began to resemble the notebook of a type-A kindergartener — which made for some interesting conversations during business meetings — but it also inspired my creativity and made me happy in a way that checking an iPhone app never did.
That fun and pleasure had a more efficient, effective impact on my life than any multi-platform functionality ever did. Planning and organizing became creative acts in and of themselves. The missing ingredient in productivity isn’t more efficiency — it’s often more happiness and fun.
Switching back to paper was such an unexpected lift to my life that I wondered if others had experienced the same thing — “digital refugees” who re-discovered the benefits of the tactile and concrete.
Curious, I surveyed my circle and discovered more than a few people who had gone back to paper when it came to personal organization or productivity needs.
I discovered a lot of creatives, especially visually oriented ones, preferred using paper planning and brainstorming tools, whether it was in the shape of a classic Moleskine notebook or a “cultish Korean planner that has lots of sections and blank space” that John Delavan, a New York-based designer, uses.
“I’m fond of my Apple computer and my iPad, and there are lots of amazing creative apps out there that help me do my work,” John tells me. “But when it comes to reflection and planning, all the tech stuff can create a kind of cognitive ‘static’ for me. It’s too left-brain. Committing ink to paper makes for a slower, more curated, thoughtful approach to thinking about projects, especially in the planning and dreaming stage.”
Not much academic research on the creative potential of paper vs. screens exists, but John surmises from his own process that the different “interfaces,” as he calls them, provoke different types of thinking. Paper, he believes, is better for original ideas and brainstorming. “What could be more individual than your handwriting or drawing style?” he muses. But screen-based tools could be better for faster execution.
Other types of people beyond creative and artistic types found uses for paper over electronic. Michelle Weinberg, a stay-at-home mom based in Brooklyn, for example, keeps a large wall calendar posted in the kitchen, a kind of command central for her household.
“My husband and I once shared a Google calendar to keep track of our schedules with each other,” she says. “But as our kids got older and we wanted them to share in the responsibility of the household, we switched to an actual calendar so everyone can see it, since we don’t let our kids have phones or computers. They have to write their obligations and school events on the calendar; it makes them aware of their responsibility to manage their own time, and they’re aware of other people’s schedules and can participate in coordinating.”
Posting it in the kitchen, where everyone gathered at least once a day for breakfast, is a strong visual reminder of the household’s activity, a kind of “beacon,” as Michelle calls it, for the family to gather around.
“It’s a nice focus for ad-hoc family meetings and discussion, in a way that a screen really isn’t,” she says. She likes the sense of community that the paper-based object gives her family. “And there’s something nice about having a physical object to store, a kind of memento,” she says, admitting she stores each month instead of throwing it away once it’s done.
As I talked to more people about their choice of paper or electronic, more digital refugees came out of the woodwork, and not just about their preference in planners. My friend Lawrence, a professor in Montreal, Canada, recently decided to stop reading e-books. He and his wife Jessica, who also works in academia, have a house full of books.
“Every single room is full of books, and every surface is heaped with them as well,” he says. “We moved a few years ago, and most of the boxes were packed with books.” Makes sense, since Lawrence and his wife both essentially make their living reading, teaching and writing books, but “the amount we had was verging on hoarder level,” he jokes.
To combat the influx, Lawrence and Jessica decided to stop buying physical books and switch to electronic ones. For a year, they read everything on their Kindles, whether it was a book for their research, an academic journal to keep up with their peers or a student paper they were grading. Reading electronically was cheaper, convenient, easier and good for the environment — all the benefits promised by better, updated technology.
But the academic didn’t bank on one thing. “In a strange way, I felt my work suffered,” Lawrence says. His research was still conducted well and he still published and produced regularly, but he means less tangible qualities of his work, “like being able to remember ideas or where I found them, or drawing connections between facts and concepts,” he says.
He also missed the process of taking notes on paper. “I used to mark up books with notations and questions in the margins,” he says, and while it sometimes led to a disorganized bundle of ideas, the process of sorting through and organizing them helped him re-think and re-analyze his thinking — a valuable process in a profession where close original readings of research and ideas are important. “There were cognitive and conceptual benefits to reading on paper that I ended up missing,” Lawrence says.
Lawrence’s e-book experiment offered him experiential evidence of a growing body of research on paper’s reading and thinking benefits. Reading on paper is often better for your memory, according to Scientific American; note-taking on paper also results in better cognitive recall and grades in school, according to The Atlantic.
If you’re especially interested in what the Washington Post calls “deep reading” — versus the typical e-reading pattern of scanning and browsing for key points and ideas — then paper is the mode of reading for you.
In the end, Lawrence went back to buying and reading from paper copies of books, especially if it pertains directly to their work. “We have a new rule in the house,” he says. “If we buy a new book, we have to get rid of an old one.”
Now he asks his students to hand in paper copies of their homework to grade, saying it makes for a more efficient process and results in better student improvement over the semester.
“Being able to pin exactly where something was unclear and comment directly on their work results in more improvement, and not just writing out a summary of why they got the grade they did,” Lawrence says.
They still use e-readers to read journals, though they print out anything they want to read more deeply and use later in their research and teaching.
“I think reading now is a mix of e-reading, paper reading and the Internet, and the different experiences each have their pros and cons,” Lawrence says. “There’s a whole layer of decision-making that wasn’t there before — should I read something on paper or e-reader, that kind of thing — but it’s good to be conscious of it.”
But Lawrence has come back around to the old-fashioned allure of books. “There’s just something about a book — having a solid object in your hand you can just pull at a moment’s notice, without clicking on a bunch of buttons or icons,” he says. “There’s a tactility that somehow links the real world to the world of the mind, and it makes for better, more grounded thought. Sometimes I wonder if e-reading leads to e-thinking: fast, fleeting, reactive, but ultimately it doesn’t take root in a mind and transform it. When you publish a real book, those ideas are meant to transcend and endure, no matter what tech is in vogue. That’s the kind of thinking I want to do, and I do it best on paper.”
Going back to paper after an electronic-based sojourn can boost creativity, pleasure and intellectual power, but most likely the biggest reasons to go back are sentimental. Humans seem hard-wired to attach memories to physical objects — the urge to create actual mementos is primal and strong, which is why Michael Wiltern, an Illinois-based father of two, began to write letters to his young daughters.
Michael works on the swing shift at a local car factory, which means he often doesn’t get to spend quality time with his kids until the weekend. He often leaves for his job before they get back from school and doesn’t get home until well after they go to bed.
“I scrambled to find a way not to feel like a ghost in my own kids’ lives,” he says. “More than anything, I want to be a good dad — not just a provider, but as an active part of their lives. But I wasn’t sure how to keep that flame alive during the week when I worked.”
His own job posed a problem, as well — he wasn’t allowed to call or text except during short breaks, since his work required close focus on the assembly line. And besides, neither of his kids had phones yet or could even check them during the school day.
So Michael turned to an old-school way to foster a sense of connection — he wrote his kids notes, short letters he’d leave for them to read when they got back from school, full of advice, good wishes for the day, thoughts and observations.
His kids often wrote back before they went to bed, and he’d read the notes in the morning after they left and write his replies before he fell asleep for the day.
The letters weren’t long or extravagant, just simple daily affairs and thoughts. “But they were full of what was important to the kids — whether a friend at school was being weird, or what they were learning about,” he says. “Then I write back, giving them advice or encouragement.” Through their letters, parent and children maintain their connection to one another, even though they don’t see one another as much as they’d like.
In the end, it’s unlikely we’ll get rid of our screens in favor of old-school paper altogether — but it’s also unlikely paper will entirely die off, as many tech evangelists like to predict.
Instead, we’ll choose between the two, especially as we discover for ourselves what kinds of thinking and engagement one medium favors over another. Institutions certainly can boost one kind of media over the other — like how schools can beef up e-textbook sales instead of investing in paper textbooks, shaping the habits and minds of a young generation — but for now, paper still has its passionate supporters.
Michael can see a day when the letter-writing will stop, when his kids get older and will likely prefer communicating on their devices. Perhaps to anticipate a future stopping point, Michael saves all the notes between him and his girls now.
“Sometimes, I’ll read the past few months and be confronted with how fast they’re growing up, and get a sense of what kind of people they’re growing into,” he says. “Even their handwriting changes so much over time. You can really see it. That’s not something you’d pick up if you texted your kids all day, you know?”
Often when Michael gets home, he sits there with the notes late into the night, his own notepad and pen nearby, and marvels at how his children can seem both faraway and yet close, through simple words on paper. He’s thinking of saving and binding their correspondence into an album or a handmade book for every year they keep up the ritual, if only for his own sake.
“It’s really only a feeling you can get from a note or letter,” he says. “There’s just something wonderful about something you can actually hold in your hand and close to your heart.”
Hand and heart — somehow, the two are intertwined in a way science is only beginning to explain, but has long made us deeply human all the same. ♦