Want to be more productive? Don’t go paperless.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores are closing their doors. Libraries lend out e-books. Receipts are emailed or texted. Bank statements are sent electronically. We file our taxes online, and our digital calendars will remind us of the looming deadline.

The world is going paperless…or is it?

When we stop to take a look at the tools we use to get things done, most of us will find that the line between digital and paper is increasingly blurred.

Graphical user interfaces in computers have always referenced physical counterparts with “desktops”, “documents”, “notebooks”, “folders” and “trash cans”. Steve Jobs himself was a strong proponent of this so-called skeuomorphic design in Apple’s initial software: brushed metal, green felt, wood panels and yellow lined paper (even going so far as to have the Mac calendar app designed after the leather stitching in his own Gulfstream jet).

Apple skeumorphic design

In recent years, Apple, Google and Microsoft have openly accepted flat design in an attempt to move past the need for these real-world metaphors. Yet, Apple still calls their new stylus a “Pencil” while Microsoft offers theirs as a “Pen”. Facebook, Dropbox, and FiftyThree each have an app that they call “Paper”.

And the crossover between digital and analog doesn’t end with metaphors. Evernote and OneNote both incorporate “Optical Character Recognition” into their apps, allowing users to handwrite notes or to scan in paper notes without sacrificing the ability to search their text.

On the other end of the spectrum, pen and paper companies are innovating just as quickly to find their place in the digital world:

  • Notebook company Moleskine partnered with Evernote to create notebooks, which automatically file handwritten notes through the use of stickers.
  • Whitelines offers products with light grey paper and white lines which are designed to disappear when scanned, preserving only the text or image on the page.
  • Livescribe makes pens which function like normal ballpoints while simultaneously capturing the pen strokes in a digital format.
  • And Mod Notebooks allow you to mail them your completed notebook, which they will then scan and digitize for you.

In the past, there was resistance to television, refrigeration, sound in film, the automobile and even the cotton gin, but in the end these new technologies eradicated their predecessors. So why does paper continue to hold on to its place in the world of productivity tools?

Igor's Workspace
Todoist developer Igor‘s workspace. He’s a self-proclaimed “paper guy”.

Digital clearly offers advantages that paper does not. But experience, and science, show us that paper can help us be more productive in ways that digital just can’t.

In the words of writer and cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf, “I would like to preserve the absolute best of older forms, but know when to use the new.”

The question is: how do we get paper and digital tools to work together in a way that plays to the strengths of each medium? This is a question I’ve been trying to answer for a long time.

In this post, I’ll describe the exact system I use to integrate paper and digital seamlessly into my personal workflow. But first we need to know what exactly we can achieve with pen and paper that we can’t achieve with digital tools and vice versa…

The Advantages of Paper

It’s easy to take paper for granted and even easier to forget how refined of a medium it truly is. After thousands of years, the use of paper feels natural and innate. In the words of Getting Things Done guru David Allen, “…the easiest and most ubiquitous way to get stuff out of your head is pen and paper.”

It’s fast and dead simple

Paper doesn’t require booting time, passwords, or fingerprint scanning. Pens and pencils don’t require charging. Field Notes don’t crash. Bic pens are ready to write at a moment’s notice, whether you have 4G connectivity or not. Cheap spiral notebooks don’t need a lightning cable or a power brick.

With paper, there’s no system to learn; no hot keys to memorize. Formatting is decided by the user and can be changed in an instant.

No quick entry system developed today can begin to compete with the access that a pocket notebook offers (not the “screen-off memo” option on Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5 nor the Surface Pro 4’s eraser clicking quick note). No virtual assistant can offer us the same versatility. Siri, Cortana and Google Now can’t doodle. Alexa can’t even leave the house.

As author Patrick McLean says, “A pen and paper has but one functionality. It captures the marks I make so that they can be referred to at a later time.” In his wonderful article In Defense of Writing Longhand, McLean goes on to explain how paper is actually more enduring than files:

Sure paper is perishable. But it is predictably perishable. Data turns to noise in all kinds of unpredictable ways. Like hard drive crashes. And if an IT person tells you that there is a way to archive a digital file, not touch it for 500 years, and guarantee that it will remain usable—that person is lying to you. If you think I’m wrong, I’ll email you some WordStar and AppleWorks documents just as soon as I can figure out how to get them off my five and a quarter inch floppies.

But I can go the National Archives right now and read a copy of the Magna Carta that was handwritten 793 years ago. No format or version issues here.

It cuts out distractions.

Our Leuchtturm1917 notebooks don’t ring when someone calls. Our Rhodia dot pads don’t vibrate when someone types us on Snapchat. Midori Traveller’s don’t pop up new tweets or Facebook invites to events we will never attend. We can’t fall down a Wikipedia rabbit hole when using a yellow legal pad. Fisher Space Pens can write upside down and underwater but they won’t let you add things to your Amazon wishlist.

Instead, paper restricts us to single-tasking, which has numerous advantages of its own. Single-tasking allows us to more easily achieve the flow state. In the flow state, also known as “being in the zone,” we burn less brain fuel (oxygenated glucose). It turns out, the vast majority of us are actually incapable of multitasking. What we refer to as “multitasking” is actually our brain jumping rapidly back and forth between tasks, which burns this same oxygenated glucose at monstrous rates, leading us into energy nosedives mid-afternoon. Multitasking has also been shown to induce the production of cortisol (a stress hormone) and adrenaline (which triggers our fight or flight response). It’s even been shown to lower our IQ!

Artyom's Notebook
Todoist developer Artyom‘s notebook: “I’m using notebook for a lot of things — from cheatsheets and brainstorm schematics to a multi-page description of ideas or even random scribbles I can make playing some game. Sometimes it’s more productive for me to work on a general project idea away from computer.”

It helps us learn.

We also know that writing is more effective for learning and remembering. Something about the mechanics of handwriting stimulates our memory in a way that typing does not. In her book Write It Down, Make it Happen, Henriette Anne Klauser explains:

Writing triggers the RAS [Reticular Activating System], which in turn sends a signal to the cerebral cortex: ‘Wake up! Pay attention! Don’t miss this detail!’ Once you write down a goal, your brain will be working overtime to see you get it, and will alert you to the signs and signals that […] were there all along.

Similarly, three studies published in the journal Psychological Science found that students who took notes by hand performed significantly better on conceptual questions than students who took notes on their laptops. Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer concluded that:

…[L]aptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

It’s healthier

The screens we stare at all day are also ruining our eyes. We all know this; we can feel it in the burning redness of long days. And, while text and images seem to be solid and unmoving, they are, in fact, continually flickering; flashing thousands of times a minute like strobe lights on amphetamines.

The brightness and color temperatures of our screen can disrupt our circadian rhythms and in turn, disrupt our sleep. Abnormal circadian rhythms lead to insomnia and have been linked to obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder.

Paper vs. Digital Venn Diagram

Advantages of Digital

Despite all of these facts, digital technology provides undeniable advantages which paper simply isn’t capable of and never will be.

It backs itself up.

Though files may corrupt and formats will become outdated, paper isn’t entirely safe either. One rogue match in a wastebasket can quickly consume a room with flames, wiping out orderly stacked shelves of composition books, incinerating years of diligence. Binders can easily be left on car roofs (as a filmmaker friend of mine did several years ago, absentmindedly scattering months of movie-prep across mid-day traffic.) Such accidents can’t be avoided.

Ink is bound to the paper upon which it is written. If we lose or damage that singular object, then we lose all of the information along with it. Digital technology offers us security in the redundant backups of the cloud. We know that dunking a Nexus in the toilet or cracking an iPhone means only the loss of the phone and not of the information.

It’s everywhere

Stealing David Allen’s word from earlier: the cloud offers us a different kind of “ubiquity.” The cloud assures that should we forget our iPad or SurfaceBook at home, we can still access our files, notes and emails on a borrowed device. Any browser with an Internet connection affords access to the libraries of information that we’ve stored in our Box, Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, SkyDrive, iCloud and OneNote accounts, regardless of our location.

It can be organized and reorganized

With the help of digital technologies, we can more easily collect all pertinent details and associated information in one place for easy access (which includes not only our own work but the work of other teammates as well). And with the help of services like Todoist, we can organize this information even further by attaching all reference material to associated tasks.

Once ordered, the flexibility of the digital format allows for easy re-organization of files and data as circumstances evolve. And while space, whether digital or pressed pulp, is limited, a digital file allows us to more easily make additions than a white college-ruled page can. Files evolve in ways that would require paper to be re-written, cut-up, stapled or paper-clipped.

Clarissa's Workspace
Brazilian country rep Clarissa‘s workspace: “I use Todoist and Google Calendar on a daily basis, but still prefer to have it on paper – I like to write and check things off. I always get more creative with pencil and paper away from the computer.”

It automates reminders.

Most people, even the most technology-resistant Luddites, would agree that digital calendars out-maneuver Day-Planners in almost every category. We can drop any event into Google calendar, iCal or Outlook and expect, with a relative level of security, that it will be stored and that we can clear it out from our own working memory. One need only spend a few hours sifting through videos on Youtube to see that even the most adamant Hobonichi and Bullet Journal lovers admit to paper’s limitation regarding effective future planning (particularly when dealing with tasks rather than events).

We simply can’t ignore the seamless beauty of a lockscreen alert reminding us of a friend’s birthday or of a concert we need to buy tickets for seven months in advance. And until the day that our spiral Rite in the Rain notebooks alert us with our grocery list when we near the grocery store, we’ll have to rely upon task management and calendar applications for this convenience.

It’s searchable.

As author Tim Ferriss states: “Information is useful only to the extent that you can find it when you need it.” While he is referring to his love of paper notebooks, I find that his point more effectively describes the power of digital search. No matter how well we organize the insides of our notebooks with tables of content and indexes they will never be as effective as a simple keyword search.

Digital app search is robust enough to dig across entire accounts, through all notes, all screen-clippings, photos and even inside of all attached documents. The speed and accuracy of these search functions are truly astounding and they leave paper lovers staring intently at their bookshelves trying to recall which notebook or notebooks hold the information needed.

It’s shareable.

Many, if not all, online services offer us the glorious benefit of real-time collaboration, allowing us to simultaneously work on a document with a co-worker in Peru, one in Taiwan and one in Portugal. We can make notes, track comments and see all progress instantly, saving not only time but also reducing confusion. Similar collaboration can only be achieved using paper by having all parties not only in the same city, but in the same room.

Integrating paper and digital: The Medium Method

After much trial and error, I’ve finally settled on a paper-digital workflow that does just that. For the sake of this article, I’ll refer to my paper-and-digital workflow as “The Medium Method.” I know, it doesn’t have the same pizazz as Kanban, Eating Live Frogs, or Pomodoro, but it will do for the next several hundred words. This simple method is meant as a starting point for merging paper and digital into your workflow to capture all of the benefits of both.

What you’ll need:

  • 1 main notebook
  • 1 travel notebook
  • Post-it notes
  • A pen or pencil
  • A task management app (I use Todoist)
  • A note app (I use OneNote)
  • An online calendar

The Medium Method - Paper Tools

Your Main Notebook

The core of the system revolves around a paper notebook. Pick your favorite. Any one will do. I prefer hard-bound notebooks for preservation purposes. Currently I’m using a ruled Midori MD notebook, but don’t get caught up in the minute differences between all of the brands available. I continually jump brands to avoid the time wasting trap of picking “the best.” What you put inside a notebook is sacred; not the notebook itself.

This notebook is what I work out of during the day. It sits open on my desk collecting everything. It’s a task collector, a scrapbook (daily comic strips often find their way in), an event grabber, a notepad, a sketchbook, a journal and a commonplace book (for gathering quotes and notes from what I read, like and learn.) This is the notebook’s dedicated purpose.

I don’t use a strict format, or stick to a legend of symbols. Though I find pre-formatted notebooks like The Action Method and Emergent Task appealing, ultimately I find the freedom to adapt far more valuable. Every day is a different day and each may require a different format. I simply stamp the date at the top of a new page and spill into the book until it’s time for bed.

(For those of you who like a more structured approach to organizing your notebook, you might want to try the Bullet journal or Strikethrough method. Productivity writer and fellow Todoist blog contributor Belle Beth Cooper recently wrote about her own modified notebook system).

Your Travel Notebook

As you can imagine, the main notebook is of utmost importance. It’s not something that I want to lose, and it’s too bulky to carry with me every time that I leave the house. For this purpose, I prefer a pocket notebook, something small and thin that doesn’t make my jeans awkwardly bulge. Right now, I prefer the Midori Travelers Notebook in passport size with one insert (but as I said before, don’t get caught up on the tools. Any pocket notebook will do).

The only purpose of this notebook is to grab stuff on the go. I chose the Midori because the leather cover keeps the paper from being demolished in my pocket, the elastic strap is convenient for holding my pen, and all of the pages are perforated for easy removal. And as much as I hate ballpoint pens, I use a Fisher Space Pen Bullet because it’s small and I know it will write in almost any circumstance.

When I get back to my desk from a meeting, coffee, lunch or whatever has driven me into the world of the living, I copy my pocket notes into my main notebook. This isn’t a necessary step for the system, but I find that it refocuses me before diving back into whatever I’m working on. I also prefer to have all of my notes in the full-sized notebook, because as a habit, I read these notebooks years later in order to remember forgotten ideas, thoughts, concepts, books and films. I also find that re-reading my old notebooks gives me a greater sense of accomplishment and gratitude.

Nightly review

At the end of each day, I do a nightly transcription and review. This is when I open my notebook and look at everything that I’ve collected from the day, and begin to process it. I look for any future events and add them to my online calendar. I look for all completed tasks on my daily post-it (more on this in a bit) and mark them complete in Todoist. I also add any new tasks from my notebook into Todoist, assigning all appropriate dates, notes and tags. I then look into my online calendar to see what I have scheduled for the next day, and I add those appointments to my post-it, followed by my top three tasks from Todoist.

A daily Post-It note

Why a post-it? Simply put, I find post-its are the hardest to ignore. I stick the day’s post-it to the next new page in my notebook and this forces me to stare at it all day as I am writing. If something is incredibly urgent I can stick the post-it to the screen of my computer or my phone or the front door. When I leave my desk, it’s just as easy to grab that little neon square and stick it inside of my pocket notebook. I also find that the limited space of the post-it forces focus. The post-it requires me to be aware of priority when making the list, and it allows me to see nothing but those three tasks throughout the day.

The Medium Method - Post-It Note

Often, while working, we allow incoming tasks to deter us from our most important daily goals. The Medium Method makes getting derailed more difficult. It’s hard to squeeze another task onto my post-it. If I’m going to squeeze a new task into my day, I have to really want to. Otherwise, if the task doesn’t qualify, it goes into my main notebook for Todoist entry later that evening.

The post-it also affords me the psychological satisfaction of crossing out a completed task. If at the end of the day, I’ve completed all three tasks I can crinkle the post-it up into a ball and shoot for the bin. If I’ve failed to complete all three, I carry the post-it over to the next day. And trust me, from experience, two post-it days suck and should be avoided at all costs.

Long-term digital storage

The last thing I do every day is copy all of my notes into OneNote (you can just as easily use Evernote or Google Keep.) All notes on movies, books, albums, etc. go into a notebook called “Commonplace.” This affords me the ability to utilize quick search in the future when needing information. I can also link notes to each other as I begin to see how new notes relate with older notes.

In OneNote, I have another notebook called “Journal.” In this notebook, I have sections for each month and in these sections are pages for each day. Here, I copy every important event that occurs during the day. While separated by day and month, I do not separate my journal pages by year. This means, for example, that my Dec 4th page has notes from 2015, 2014, and any other years for which I have notes.

The Medium Method - Long-term Storage

When I copy the current notes into the journal each day, I can then be reminded of what happened on this same day in the past. The most important part of this process is that it allows me to search for past events. Past events aren’t something that we think of often when creating productivity systems, but wouldn’t it be useful to have access to this type of information when we need it? Wouldn’t it be nice to know: What day was that meeting? What was the name of that person that I met at the last networking event? What did we talk about? What was that restaurant we went to in Switzerland called? When did I buy my laptop? When does that warranty expire?

I even find that this nightly review is useful for social media. Did I think of anything short and funny today? Save that for Twitter tomorrow. Did I make any doodles or sketches that I like? Save that for Instagram. What concept from the book I’m reading stuck out as the most impactful? Save that to discuss in my Snapchat story for the next day.

Using desirable difficulty for learning and creativity

This hybrid workflow may seem unnecessarily complicated (after all, you’re basically capturing everything twice–sometimes more.) But in practice it’s completely intuitive. You’re using things in a way that plays to their strengths and minimizes their shortcomings.

It’s faster and more natural to jot something down on paper rather than switching to the right app or firing up your computer, and you won’t get distracted by notifications along the way. It’s easier and much more visible to stick a post-it somewhere than it is to remember to look at an app or device that requires opening.

On the other hand, it’s easier to search for information on a computer than it is to thumb through notebooks and pages. It’s easier to be automatically notified of events and due dates with reminders from Google Calendar or Todoist than it is to go back and find those notes in your paper notebook. And it will always be easier to share information and collaborate with colleagues by adding attachments and comments than it is to photocopy your notes and expect someone to decipher your hand-writing.

A nightly review may seem time-consuming and redundant, but in reality it only takes about 15-30 minutes and it refreshes all of that information in my mind at the end of the day, prepping it for my brain to move into long-term storage.

This is what Doctor Robert Bjork refers to as “desirable difficulty”; he’s found that the difficulties of certain activities, such as copying notes, actually enhances not only memory but enables us to more easily make connections between different bits of information. As Dr. Bjork says:

We encode and store new information by relating it to what we already know–that is, by mapping it onto, and linking it up with, information that already exists in our memories.

The Medium method relies on desirable difficulty and re-enforces not only the benefits of paper and digital but also takes advantage of how our brains actually work to spur deeper learning and creativity.

For me, The Medium Method is much more than a productivity system; it’s a system of organization, an education amplifier, and a lifestyle enhancer. In the short time that I’ve used it, I find that I’m more focused, productive, organized, and informed. I’m less stressed, and I sleep better. Most importantly, with The Medium Method, I’m happier and more satisfied in my life and work overall.

Are you using a hybrid paper-digital productivity system to get things done? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

About the author: Chad Hall is a self proclaimed writer/artist/bookworm/productivityfreak/hermit. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he works as a freelance marketing consultant. He is currently writing his first novel, and is looking to begin a YouTube vlog. You can find him on twitter, Instagram & Snapchat as @therealchadhall.

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