Unmana Datta

Why Paper is Still My Favorite Productivity Tool

By: Unmana Datta | September 18, 2013 | 

Heap of notebooksBy Unmana Datta

In many ways, I’m a denizen of this age.

I scoff when others lament the demise of paper and print.

It’s all very well to talk about the smell and feel of new books when you buy two books a year.

I buy several a month, and in the good old days before handheld readers, would give away dozens of books to friends every six months or so, lest the house get overrun!

I do get paper books once in a while, still. I do like the smell and feel of some books: Especially books with a lot of art in them. I love getting books to review.

But you’ll have to pry my Kindle out of my cold, dead hands.

Notebook Love

However, one way in which I’m old-fashioned in the use of paper is to make notes. I have a lot of notebooks for a variety of uses.

  1. One memo pad to make daily to-do lists in and write short notes to myself and my team. It’s only a few inches long: Write a few lines and crumple and throw away the page when you’re done.
  2. One small notebook to write down what I’ve been working on.
  3. Another small notebook for household lists that we’ve had forever (it’s thick.)
  4. Another little notebook to carry in my small handbag, in case I should want to write down something in the middle of a coffee date.
  5. One more lovely little notebook where I wrote down the early notes about Markitty: Our ideas and plans and updates. Haven’t updated that in some months!
  6. One notebook for blog ideas, which I started after Gini Dietrich suggested it. I’ve found this really useful.
  7. One plain notebook  I’ve just started using to draw requirements for graphs I want to add on to Markitty.
  8. One notebook for everything. I’ve had it for a couple of years now, but haven’t made my way through a third of it. It has different sections for meeting notes and task lists (longer versions, that don’t fit into my little memo pad), ideas, and blog posts.
  9. A couple of older notebooks I have used for years now (but still have some life in them). I usually take them out to meetings so I don’t have to lug around the Giant Notebook!

This is all I use regularly (I think). The ones I use most are the little task list memo pad, the blog ideas notebook, the smaller of two notebooks I use for meetings, and the Giant Notebook of Everything. And of course, the accomplished-tasks notebook that I don’t update as often as I should.

Ten notebooks! I don’t blame you if you think I’m weird, but when I tell myself I should use fewer notebooks, I can’t settle on which one to give up.

Paper > Digital

I do use digital task management tools as well: Email, Trello, calendar, but I’m not giving up on paper. Here’s why:

  • It helps me focus. There is no Twitter to skip to or incoming email to catch my attention.
  • I love the satisfaction of physically checking off items on my list, and of crumpling the little sheet and throwing it away when I’m done.
  • It’s more versatile. I can start out by writing down what I want a graph to look like, but draw it instead. I don’t have to know Photoshop or figure out how to make the right kind of bar on PowerPoint.
  • For someone who spends most of her workday staring at her computer screen, any little time away from a backlit screen is a bonus!
  • It’s portable. If you’re like me and don’t enjoy writing long posts on your phone, and have no idea how to draw a graph on it… pen and paper really is the easiest recording tool to carry around. And if you forgot your notebook, there’s always a napkin around somewhere.

Are you holding on to paper too, or do you think I’m a troglodyte? What’s your favorite productivity tool?

About Unmana Datta

Unmana Datta is a marketing professional who loves writing. She writes about marketing on the Markitty blog and about other stuff on her personal blog.

  • susancellura

    Oh, I LOVE paper. I have a notebook that I keep everything in and try to remember to keep a small one in my purse. I love books in my hands and have developed a system – if it’s just a fun read, I use my iPhone or iPad; if it is a book I know I want to keep, I buy it. And I buy the books my friend http://charlesmartinbooks.com/ writes in hardback. (Check him out!)
    I don’t think you are a troglodyte. Pen and paper – I love the new school year. I have a friend who buys herself a new notebook when she starts a new job, not that she job hops. 🙂

    • susancellura In that photo in the post, the little purple notebook with the white peacock on it is what I carry in my purse if I can’t fit in anything else.
      I review books for this site once in a while, and love getting the paper books, especially hardcover books. That gets me through even if I don’t love the book (because now I have to read it, since I’m supposed to review it!)

  • Lara Wellman

    I wrote a post about this once too.  I honestly believe I process information differently when I write it out by hand than when I type it and that’s why I still love to write all my lists and my ideas in notebooks.  When I go to conferences, I take all my notes by hand because I remember them better.   While I love my electronics, I have no intention of giving up my notebooks any time soon 🙂

    • Lara Wellman Absolutely. I know what you mean about processing the information differently. I read long ago about the connection between remembering information that is written down rather than only hearing it.

      • Word Ninja Lara Wellman There is something to that. In the olden days when I had an admin and I was out of the office and needed to find some bit of information, it would go like this: It’s on a piece of yellow legal pad paper written in red ink in a little box with a star next to it in the right-hand column of the second page. Which is odd, because I consider myself more of a verbal than visual person.

        • moorejnnfr

          RobBiesenbach Word Ninja Lara Wellman Oh, Rob…I have *that* conversation about little boxes and stars all the time! Ditto everything said above about processing and remembering things differently in print vs online. Being a visually tactile person (I have to see it and *touch* it in some fashion), I’m with you all on supporting the timber industry! 🙂 Three cheers for paper!

        • RobBiesenbach That’s a lovely story! I think you need more notebooks! Word Ninja Lara Wellman

        • RobBiesenbach Lara Wellman Ha, I put a star next to notes, especially from interviews for profiles, that are great facts or stellar quotes; check marks for things that definitely require a second look; and a big DO next to meeting notes when I have a new task to complete. I’m actually distracted when people take meeting notes on a laptop, they always seem somewhat disengaged from the conversation (although I realize it’s a time saver!).

        • Word Ninja Lara Wellman Yes, I feel like my notes are an artwork. I use arrows in the left-hand margin to point out key followup items. And I find live notetaking via laptop distracting, too. On the other hand, when I’m interviewing people over the phone, and need to really capture their thoughts verbatim, I prefer now to type my notes because it’s just faster than handwriting. (And I can actually read the typed notes!)

        • RobBiesenbach Lara Wellman I’ve tried typing notes during phone interviews (with you on being able to read them better!), but it didn’t work for me. I’m not sure it would save me time since I like to start with a blank page once I sit down to write an article. I guess whatever works…

      • Word Ninja I strongly believe that. That’s why I’m an obsessive note-taker. I might not look at those notes later, but just writing down what strikes me as important helps me remember it.  Lara Wellman

    • Lara Wellman Glad more people feel the same way. 🙂 I do think I “process information differently when I write it out by hand,” as you say. I rarely write blog posts on paper because I have to type them out again later, but when I do, I feel words flow more easily when I’m writing.

  • YES!! I love paper! It helps me focus. There is no Twitter to skip to or incoming email to catch my attention.I love the satisfaction of physically checking off items on my list, and of crumpling the little sheet and throwing it away when I’m done.
    Couldn’t agree more! I have a weekly to-do list and I feel like I accomplished something when I check things off of that list. Although I do need a new notebook for each client – mine are a bit full.

    • yvettepistorio Yes the checking off items on the list and then throwing it away when you are done – such a satisfying feeling!

      • CommProSuzi

        LSSocialEngage yvettepistorio It’s not only satisfying, but it’s not staring you in the face when you access your to-do list or calendar.

        • CommProSuzi LSSocialEngage yvettepistorio I love saying “CHECK!” out loud. Satisfying indeed!

        • CommProSuzi LSSocialEngage Yup, exactly 🙂

        • RebeccaTodd I might start doing that. Though I have been known to yell, “DONE!” CommProSuzi LSSocialEngage yvettepistorio

      • LSSocialEngage yvettepistorio OK, has anyone else ever written something on the list AFTER it’s done, just so you can have the satisfaction of checking it off?

        • rosemaryoneill LSSocialEngage yvettepistorio Ha, YES!

        • rosemaryoneill yvettepistorio hmmm… I haven’t done that one. I gather that won’t be equally satisfying. Is it Rosemary?

        • LSSocialEngage rosemaryoneill yvettepistorio It’s not quite as satisfying, but since I do a weekly review on Sunday, it helps to remember things you accomplished that may not have been on the original list. I do feel a little bit psycho for doing it though…

        • rosemaryoneill LSSocialEngage yvettepistorio Oh, totally have done that!

        • CommProSuzi

          I worked with a woman who stopped every 15 min to document what she did. She said it helped keep her focused.

        • rosemaryoneill LSSocialEngage yvettepistorio That’s why I have a separate notebook to write down what I’ve completed. B-)

      • LSSocialEngage yvettepistorio Or the CROSSING OFF!

        • Word Ninja yvettepistorio YES! Crossing off is better than checking off!

    • yvettepistorio OF COURSE you need a new notebook for each client! Go buy them!
      I approach buying stationery with great enthusiasm, as you can see.

      • Unmana yvettepistorio Yes – I might have to make a trip to the store today…

  • I do love paper but I also like having the choice to use one or the other. I have been taking both my ipad and a notebook to conferences. The notebook is like second nature, the ipad took a little getting used to but worked well too for me.  But there is just something about writing a list down on real paper. I  actually feel motivated  to tackle each item one by one.  I am trying to be better with my e-reader. I will read a few books on there but then crave flipping through the actual pages of a real book, then go to my bookstore and buy a few.

    • LSSocialEngage Oh yes, I’m not anti-tech by any means. In fact, for a few years I had all my lists online, and then realized I didn’t much look at them again after making them. Making a paper list and leaving it right on my desk in plain sight works so much better for me.

  • CommProSuzi

    I have a group of notebooks, too. One for each BIG CATEGORY.  I find that a simple notebook is more helpful to me than the notes section in a planner. (Com’n some ideas require a whole page! How is that one lone page in my day planner helpful at that point?!) I am tactile and have always loved the simplicity of pen to paper. 
    Granted I have a slew of tech tools, and automated reminders have saved my hiney; but if I need to deep dive into an idea… I like paper.  Sometimes, my logic takes a circuitous route. Sometimes, random great ideas leap ahead of what I’m working on. Rather than stop working on a document, opening another document, jotting down the idea then jumping back, it’s easier to write it on the list and address it later. 
    I also like paper in meetings for the same reasons you mention: No distraction. No twitter, facebook post, etc to lure my attention away.   If I need to draw a picture to illustrate an idea, I can quickly! 
    If I have to leave a note with someone, I can! 
    It’s good to know I’m not alone.

    • CommProSuzi “Com’n some ideas require a whole page! How is that one lone page in my day planner helpful at that point?!)” I know, right? I started taking notes on this calendar/planner and then found I made it ugly by scribbling all over it, so I went back to my notebooks. 
      So glad you feel the same way! My team don’t understand “all my notebooks” and look at me weird when I hand them a paper note. (“What? I wrote it down so it’s easier to remember! What do you mean email?”)

  • Great post! I love to use pen and paper when I am creating lists, or thinking around a new strategy. But I have to say, I use my iPhone “notes” field more than anything. I use it right in customer meetings to record my thoughts, and the easy “email” options means I can forward the notes along to my boss or “the cloud” whilst still in the meeting. Amazing for me!

    • RebeccaTodd Yes, that’s one thing that is great about taking notes on a device: much easier to share! And you don’t have to type up everything afterwards.

  • Paper is absolutely my go-to for interview notes and for rough essay and blog drafts, especially. When I draft on the computer, I tend to edit myself as I type. A notebook is a great place for “freewriting” (remember that school exercise when the teacher actually told you not to -gulp- worry about your grammar or spelling?). 
    I let my thoughts spill out over the page, draw arrows, cross out and enjoy all those tactile sensations we miss out on when we’re at the computer. This is also why I often use a pencil, just to hear the sound of it and stick it behind my ear like I’m a real writer.

    • Word Ninja “I let my thoughts spill out over the page, draw arrows, cross out and enjoy all those tactile sensations we miss out on when we’re at the computer. ” Exactly. It’s so much easier to express your thoughts on paper.
      I like using pencils, but I’m too lazy to keep them sharpened, so I keep a bunch of pens instead.

      • Unmana I actually enjoy the whole sharpening process but admittedly use pens, too. When my hair was long, and I would be concentrating for hours on writing (on paper), I’d have a pencil or pen behind each ear. On occasion I’d be so in the zone that a pencil would eventually get lost in my hair and I’d shove another pencil in its place. 
        Thanks for the fun post!

  • Jami Clayman

    Yes! I love paper. I have a digital calendar, but continue to use a paper calendar at work. You also won’t find me without a notebook in my bag. If I’m learning a new topic I prefer to use a book so I can dogear the pages, highlight text, and insert my own stickies. For me, paper will never die!

  • I find that having a pen and paper in hand allow me to be more creative than when I am sitting in front of a computer. Maybe it is that while I am on the computer I may be tempted to search other stuff but with a pen and paper you can be alone with your thoughts.

    • Saqib101 “Maybe it is that while I am on the computer I may be tempted to search other stuff”: that’s exactly it with me. If I’m on my computer, I’ll keep going off to look at my email or Twitter. Paper makes it much easier to focus.

  • Couldn’t agree more! I would take more notes on my iPad/iPhone, but given my line of work I’m having to constantly lock/unlock my device throughout meetings. I also love the ability to map things our and show connections on paper moreso than on a digital device. I’m sure there are apps out there that allow it, but I’m still good with my pen and pad.

    • dave_link Exactly! Nothing beats the flexibility of paper!

  • Great points on using paper, and I know some people who get ideas/concepts from hand-to-brain a lot quicker when taking physical notes on a notepad.
    But I never even carry a pen nowadays…much less paper. I rely on my iPhone and iPad (w/a physical keyboard) to take down notes.
    I’m with you on the books, though. I read my business books on the iPad, but I still read fiction by way of a trip to the local library for a good ole fashioned book – hard cover or paperback.

    • dbvickery Oh, but I much prefer Kindle books! I do sometimes feel I get my ideas down better on paper. 
      One app I use on the iPad though, is iA Writer, for blog posts where I’m not using a lot of links and references. It’s very distraction-free.

  • A little from column A, a little from column B.
    I use Google calendar to keep track of appointments, meetings, conference calls, etc. More and more I use Evernote to collect idea and clip articles—I have notebooks there for Blog posts, speech material, marketing prospects, etc. I love it. I also love Apple’s Notes function because I can see it from any device.
    On the other hand, I still keep two things on paper. Every week I have a to-do list of work, personal and other items. And each day I write out to-dos on a paper Dayrunner “one day per page” calendar. Like you, I love checking stuff off lists. 
    But I do not throw these away. I’ve been keeping them all for 20 years. If you want to know what I was doing on this day in 1997, I could pretty much tell you—from what I worked on to where I went that night and with whom and any movie I watched, etc. I really, really like that for whatever reason. And I wish it was all digital so I could search it easily (a project for a future unpaid intern).
    I’m always fascinated by other people’s systems. Ten notebooks! Yowza!

    • RobBiesenbach I have my notebooks, you have all those lists! 🙂 20 years? Wow.

      • RobBiesenbach By the way, those *are* my notebooks in the picture. I think a couple are missing in there.

  • Arment Dietrich, Inc.

    Use all the paper!! ^yp

  • Always good to meet another paper and pen fan. I think the benefits of using paper and pen for all sorts of things is highly underrated. I am a raving paper and pen fan. Use it for organising myself, business planning, meetings and even my diary is a paper one.

    • Ali_Davies I try writing out blog posts or short fiction in long hand sometimes, but mostly it seems too much work.

  • If I’m learning something, I need to write down the process and/or steps. That’s the ONLY way it will stick in my head.

    • belllindsay YES. Much as I delude myself, I still learn this way. Must be all the homework in school. :-/

  • You know it’s very different for me, as someone who grew up in a very digital environment. I feel more comfortable going straight digital for my productivity needs. When I go paper, I end up having to integrate it within my digital ecosystem, which can be messy.

    • pshapiro ARE YOU SAYING WE’RE OLD?

      Seriously,  I used to feel like that a few years ago, until I started using paper again, and it’s been liberating. (It’s smarter to go digital, frankly, you can find your own notes. But if they are digital, I don’t look for them!)

      • Ha ha. I’m saying I’m slightly younger and as a result I grew up with digital more ingrained in my life. Digital takes care of my organization, whereas with paper I have to manage it myself. I’m the opposite, I forget to look at paper. After all, everything else I do is in the digital world already. Paper seperates it.

  • Julia Stewart

    Hands down, post-it notes, for to-do reminders and lists. Steno notebook is a close second.

    • @Julia Stewart I actually don’t use post-it notes that often. I suspect it’s because when i start making a list, it soon becomes too long to fit on a post-it.

  • Arment Dietrich, Inc.

    Yes, and yes! I have my steno notebook right next to me 🙂 ^yp

    • @Arment Dietrich, Inc. We should start an association of paper-people.

      • Unmana I’m in

      • CommProSuzi

        Color me there!!!!

  • I’ll always love paper. Can’t help it. I have BOXES of notebooks. Boxes.

    • Tinu WHAT? I envy you. 🙁

  • 2walkwithstyle

    Love it..i don’t feel weird anymore 🙂 I have so many notebooks, almost addicted if you ask me! Lovely post.

    • 2walkwithstyle Well, I’m not alone!

  • Kelly Glass

    I love this post! Although I’m only a two-notebook person (one for professional and one for personal), I can’t imagine giving them up. I complement the notebooks with Post-It notes and there’s nothing better than the noise of crumpling one up and tossing it because I’m done. Best of all, nobody tells me to turn off my notebook when my flight is ready to land.

    • Kelly Glass Thanks so much for commenting, Kelly. I’m sorry if I ever scoffed at your not-digital habits — I’ve found paper so much easier to use in some ways.
      (Though I admit, ten notebooks is a bit too much.)

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