The Pencil Is Mightier Than the Laptop

I'm a note taker. Have been for more than 30 years. When I was in college (before laptops became ubiquitous), I had a set of loose leaf binders – one for each class in the semester – that I'd fill. Mostly handwritten notes from lectures but also handouts, tests, quizzes – anything associated with the class. I had decent handwriting and the ability to organize things pretty well on-the-fly. I developed a little system. I devised a set of symbols and abbreviations to shorten common words and phrases. I used mechanical pencils so I wouldn't have to sharpen them, nice drafting erasers so I could erase errors cleanly, and a 3-hole punch so I could incorporate any printed material into my notebooks. It was a great system, the creation of which help me memorize stuff and made a great study aid for tests. I was so attached to my notes that when a semester was over, I'd seal up the notes for each class in manila envelopes and file them away in boxes, which I still have in my attic! Nuts, huh?

When I joined the working world, I continued my note taking. Ironically, as a working professional my notebooks were less organized. In retrospect I suppose it's because college lectures are usually (hopefully!) monologues delivered in some kind of orderly fashion, but works days are haphazard and require you to be an active participant, not just a listener. So my work notes were more unstructured and chaotic. But they were still essential to helping me remember things. When laptops became ubiquitous my notes became electronic. First as text documents filed in folders. Then eventually I discovered OneNote and became a big fan. With OneNote I love how you can incorporate any media into your notes, insert web links, embed other documents, and link notes to appointments in Outlook. And I absolutely adore electronically searching for things - that's a huge time saver.

But I'd noticed that my retention of material when I take notes on a laptop is much reduced. Honestly I thought it was the slightly diminished memory of my middle aged brain. But then I listened to a Freakonomics podcast that talked about studies showing that understanding and retention of material is significantly eroded when you take electronic notes. It wasn't just me! The suspected (but unconfirmed) reason is related to the fact that you can't write as fast as you can type. This forces you to listen and assess what is being said so you can figure out what are the important bits to commit to your notes – as opposed to typing where you become a machine just transcribing words without a lot of thought. Also, the physical act of writing might have an impact as well. Regardless of the reasons, it's been proven: Handwriting notes leads to better understanding and recall.

So a couple weeks ago, I decided to try out my old way of doing it again. I bought a notebook and a couple of mechanical pencils and drafting erasers. I decided to not use OneNote for my business meetings. I would still use it for research because of the multimedia abilities, but otherwise I'd commit to using pencil and paper for at least a couple weeks. And I'd try to make my paper notes a little more structured and suitable for later referral than my earlier work notes on paper.

This week was the real test. I had a series of customer meetings, each was 2-3 hours long and covered several topics with multiple speakers. I used completely handwritten notes for all the meetings. In these meetings complicated problems were being discussed, important information was being revealed, key decisions were being made, and critical tasks were being handed out. So it was very important to my job to stay engaged.

The result? I'll be damned if it didn't freakin' work! A surprise for me is that, for some reason, my mind doesn't wander as much when I'm writing on paper. Honestly, in the past I've found it difficult to stay 100% in the game beginning to end in these sort of long intense meetings. But this time I was fully engaged the entire time. And I definitely have a much better understanding and recall of the meetings, I'd say the experiment was a big success.

I'm still a bit worried about losing the ability to electronically search my notes, but I think there's really something to handwritten note taking. I'm going to keep it up. I need to re-think my system a little because I'll need to refer back to my notes longer than just one semester. Maybe. Come to think of it, once a note is 3 months old, it's a rare event that I need to refer to it again. And once it gets a year old, I can safely toss it 99.9% of the time. I will need to figure out how to best divide and organize my meeting (handwritten) notes and research (electronic) notes so I can find things. But I think the effort will be worth it.