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You Can Have My Notebook When You Pry it From My Cold, Dead Fingers

103810390_1e2f9e04f9[1]I have long been a proponent of a paperless office but today I need to share my great secret shame: I am addicted to taking notes on paper. When I was at CES I carried around a laptop, tablets, camera, and still got my fix with a small notepad. When I attended B&N’s most recent press briefing I brought an 8.5×11 notepad.

I’ve had a 20 years plus fixation with paper notes, so I was particularly annoyed when I read an article in the Harvard Business Review last week:

I knew right away, when you walked in here with a paper notebook — a paper notebook! — I realized that this meeting was not going to be a good use of our time.

You’d make better use of your time if you took your notes in digital form, ideally in an access-anywhere digital notebook like Evernote that makes retrieval a snap. If you had that, I could shoot you the link of the book I want you to read, or the contact card of the person you want to meet. And if you planned to act any of the ideas or outcomes from this meeting, you would want to pop the follow-up tasks into your task management program.

Leaving aside the fact that even Evernote has conceded the value of paper notebooks when they helped develop a new paper notebook with Moleskine, I want to challenge any proponent of digital notes with matching the use cases and functionality of a paper notebook.

In my experience a paper notebook is a strong contender against digital notes in the categories of cost, battery life, screen space, durability and persistence, and it also comes in a close second for certain types of sharing.

I want someone to show me a digital note-taking platform that is as cheap as a 10 cent spiral notebook. I want to see the platform that can match the battery life of that notebook, the way I can tear a page out and share it with anyone in my physical presence, or the way that the effective screen size of that notebook can expand to cover

want to see the platform that can match the battery life of that notebook, the way I can tear a page out and share it with anyone in my physical presence, or the way that the effective screen size of that notebook can expand to cover 8 ,9, or 10 pages torn out and spread across my desk, thus enabling me to see vastly more content at once.

I want to see a digital note-taking platform that can match the persistence of the paper notebook.

If you think digital content will last longer then the joke is on you. Last fall I went through my old files and threw away a lot of my college notebooks. Some of those notebooks had been languishing in my attic for 10 or more years and yet I still had them.

Don’t even think of asking me for the digital files from that era. Thanks to the vagaries of dead computers, a stolen laptop, and time, I can’t reliably put my hands on any of my work which is more than 4 years old. I doubt I am alone in that.

And I doubt I am alone in that.

I’ve taken notes on cash register receipts. I’ve taken notes on business cards. I’ve even taken notes on my hand and arm (being white and male is good for more than just societal acceptance). No digital note-taking platform can even come close to fulfilling those use cases.

Anyone who says that digital notes are hands down better than paper is either a fool or selling something. The author of the above article falls in the latter category; she’s shilling her new book Work Smarter with Evernote.

'Nuff said.

image by Wm Jas

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Robert Nagle January 20, 2013 um 4:48 pm

Ditto for me.

By the way, I used to take a perverse pride in bringing nothing but a legal pad and pen to any technical conferences I attended (where everyone around me would be loaded by their gadgets). To be fair, I did keep a wifi-enabled PDA in my pocket (which I almost never showed to people), and the hallways of the conference hall had browsers for checking email.

One other thing. At conferences, notetaking was way overrated. Usually I just wrote URLs or interesting phrases or names of people (but I probably could look these things up later on my own).

The purpose of going to a conference is to meet people and enjoy meatspace (rather than staring at some screen).

The only bad thing about a real notepad is often forgetting which page goes to which talk (and at what date). But that’s easily rectified….

Amelia January 20, 2013 um 5:16 pm

I like my iPad, and I do use it to take notes in some situations, but when I’m going to a meeting or conference and need to do serious note taking nothing beats a notebook. As much as I like my note taking app, it’s better suited for reading, highlighting and scribbling on PDFs, it doesn’t work for the way I take notes.

S Emerson January 20, 2013 um 7:11 pm

Another vote for real paper notes!

When writing down thoughts for a blog post, for example, with paper on the desktop, pen in hand, browser open looking for resources and other people’s thoughts on the subject seems much less work than typing notes into any program. Ya urls can get messy but I could email myself the resource links if I was planning but not writing right away.

There is something about actually writing notes that helps engrain the information into my brain opposed to copy and pasting information into a Word document for future reference when learning something.

Unless you type in shorthand, I don’t see how typing something into your laptop/iPad/any other device could be any faster than making manual notes.

Mike Cane January 20, 2013 um 8:13 pm

>>>Thanks to the vagaries of dead computers, a stolen laptop, and time, I can’t reliably put my hands on any of my work which is more than 4 years old. I doubt I am alone in that.

That’s it. Open my old wounds. An unwanted hard reset of an unbacked-up Palm III that destroyed stuff I could never duplicate. Ditto another PDA that was stolen. Then a Palm Tungsten T that suddenly dropped dead. Then recently accidentally formatting a **1GB** SD card, that was *meant* to be in my LifeDrive, and wiping out stuff.

Still, I damn hate scrawling with paper.

DavidW January 20, 2013 um 9:31 pm

I have to do alot of math for my job, much faster and easier to do it in a notebook than on a computer. For meetings I tend to jot down important things on my iphone, the notes sync back to my macbook. It is very convenient that in a matter of seconds I can pull up notes from a meeting the better part of a year back. Both paper and electronic gizmos have their place.

Dan Meadows January 21, 2013 um 8:07 am

There’s a number of ways paper in better than digital, in my experience. I am a huge proponent of digital, but I still use pen on paper quite a bit. one of the principle reasons is that I write faster than I type, so handwriting keeps up with the pace of my brain far more effectively than typing. I’ve also found it far easier to do heavy proofreading of material on paper than on a screen. I totally agree with your take on taking notes by hand, as well. I worked as a reporter for years, and I can’t begin to imagine the total pain in the ass taking interview notes on a tablet or some such device would be. I love my smartphone, but its just a tool and I like to use all the tools at my disposal as efficiently as possible.

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[…] “Quero que alguém me mostre uma plataforma digital para tomar notas, que sejá tão barata quanto um bloco de notas. Quero ver a plataforma que consiga equiparar a “bateria” de um bloco de notas, o jeito de destacar e compartilhar uma página com alguém na sua frente, ou o jeito que o tamanho da “tela” do bloco de notas pode se expandir para cobrir o equiavalente a 8, 9 ou 10 páginas destacadas e espalhadas sobre a minha mesa, assim me permitindo ver muito mais conteúdo de uma vez só”. A argumentação completa está aqui. […]

Logan Kennelly January 21, 2013 um 11:45 am

Some of this is also the technology involved. Until recently, digital note-taking applications simply weren’t that good. There are a couple on the iPad that work really with the stylus, and what Samsung has done with the note already is just short of amazing. Using a pen and writing on the screen, combined with the ability to edit and software clean-up and diagrams, is a factor that I can see changing a lot of people’s minds.

As DavidW said, there is a place for both, but digital note-taking has barely taken off yet. The current most popular platform (iPad) isn’t built for such a task (although it can be retrofitted for it with some work), and people don’t know what’s possible with a little effort.

k1tsun3 January 22, 2013 um 1:54 pm

I LOVE taking digital notes! They’re legible (my handwriting is dreadful), and immediately synced with my computer (I use evernote on my ipad) and my phone, and if, in the next meeting I need to have the past notes, they’re immediately available. Everything is saved and handy, whatever device I’m using, and if there’s some wretched handout in the meeting I can usually just pull it up on the ipad and not having carry anything paper back to my office with me. I even do my grocery lists on my phone, and I just love it.

Rolf January 23, 2013 um 5:29 am

Whenever around a colleague taking notes in a PDA or smartphone or tablet, I used to smack my Moleskine to the floor and stamp and jump on it. Then I’d pick it up, leaf through it, and conclude: "Ah, it still works!" Then I’d reach for their gadget and say "Now let’s try with yours". They’d turn pale, usually. [insert devilish laughter here].

Clark January 23, 2013 um 12:43 pm

You forgot the points of dropping both electronic and paper in water for a few minutes. Paper will still have notes.

Xendula January 25, 2013 um 12:44 am

True, but how often does one drop notebooks into water? I never have.

Xendula January 25, 2013 um 12:41 am

Being extremely forgetful, I have always depended on my notes, especially at work. The only problem was always fidning the note I needed when looking for it, or having it at my desk, but needing it in a meeting.

I switched to taking notes on my iPad when the iPad 1 came out, and could never go back to paper. However, I don’t type them: handwriting is much faster for me and allows for more flexibility.
I own every single handwriting app ever made for the iPad and Noteshelf is the one I use exclusively (and the only reason why I could never fully switch to Android, though I have Android devices). I keep a notebook for each subject, can select between tons of different pens and highlighters, paper and covers, insert images and type text if I wish (I usually don’t).
I can send any amount of pages or entire notebooks by email either as PDFs or images, or save them to the cloud.

It beats paper notebooks in that I can carry them all around, and I can add remove pages from notebooks. I can use tons of colors (color/pen/highlighter addict since highschool), yet only need one single pen.

I think my addiction to Noteshelf is what is keeping me in the iOS ecosystem. For other users, other handwriting apps may be better, but they are out there and should not be disregarded. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single really good (=same extensive features) available for Android.

Weny January 28, 2013 um 1:40 am

I made the switch back to paper note taking on the go two years ago and feel nothing but relief. There is something about a fine pen and paper that simply feels good. I seem to remember the details of what I’ve written in that manner better than when I use the keyboard and screen. However, I am seeing the wisdom of backing up my paper notes to digital for storage. I use a camera to upload my notes or artwork and then store them in evernote.

I feel that there is a place for both methods in our arsenal of tools. I don’t see paper notebooks and pens going away any time soon, if ever.

Terry Murray February 1, 2013 um 1:40 pm

I’ve been called a Luddite and "old school" because I still use a notebook and pen when I take notes at conferences that I cover as a journalist. I write and file stories on my laptop, of course, but I wouldn’t take notes in sessions with it because (1) it’s a bit noisy, (2) I sometimes have to jump up and follow the speaker out of the room to ask questions and it’s easier to bring just my notebook and digital voice recorder – and then what do I do with the laptop/netbook? Leave it in the conference room for someone to steal? and (3) I know they’re getting smaller and lighter, but I already schlep a conference programme, camera (DSLR), digital voice recorder, wallet and other personal stuff – and don’t really want to add the weight of the laptop as I’m wandering around big convention centres like McCormick Place in Chicago. I may be old-school, but I’m proud of it. Besides, it works for me.

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Robert John May 8, 2013 um 8:12 am

🙂 I’ve solved this problem for myself.

I find the CamNote notebooks work well. These are paper notepads that can be scanned using their free app. I find the quality of the scans very crispy. The app also automatically syncs to Evernote and Google Drive – stopping me from losing my notes, and allowing me to write.

I’ve used a few note taking apps, but I still very much prefer taking notes on paper. Especially lists, drawings & diagrams.

If anyone discovers a better solution, let me know – I’m always up for trying better ways – [email protected].

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