The Pen Is Mightier Than The Phone: A Case For Writing Things Out

Writing things down, with your actual hands, is just plain better at getting you to remember and execute good ideas. Here's why.

There’s all kinds of advice across the web about when to use which app for each small thing that needs doing. But the advocates for using paper to complete certain tasks are not so loud (you can’t hear them typing, among other things). Yet a Forrester Research survey of business professionals found that 87 percent of them supplement gadgets with paper productivity, and 47 percent thought their personal and company efficiency would improve with better note-taking. The survey might have been biased, since it was sponsored by the makers of the Livescribe smart pen, but you can’t help but think it touches on a need to refamiliarize ourselves with ink and thinly sliced wood pulp.

Paper, but more specifically handwriting, will likely always be with us, and that’s a good thing. It’s a smoother path from your brain to the printed word, it saves you from task-switching overload, and it possibly makes the best to-do list. 

So here’s a chance for advocates of the handwritten way to make their best pitch for the best uses of dead trees.

Lightning-Strike Ideas

Carrying a notebook with you at all times is cheap and easy. You can catch those startlingly crisp ideas about a project that pop up in the auto shop waiting room, the airport, a bookstore, or wherever. Marina Martin, business efficiency consultant and self-described "quintessential Type-A Personality," says that even the most fluid, thoughtful electronics introduce too much friction into the process of thinking, writing down, then thinking further out.

"We're more likely to find an electronic device, open our favorite word processor, and fiddle with a margin and font size before committing a single word to the page," Martin wrote in an email. "Automatic spellcheck and word correction can slow the process further and cause you to lose your train of thought."

By committing your thought to paper, you’re also doing more to lock it into place. Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, has the brain scans to prove it. Berninger told the Wall Street Journal in Oct. 2010 that as your hand executes each stroke of each letter, it activates a much larger portion of the brain’s thinking, language, and "working memory" regions than typing, which whisks your attention along at a more letters-and-words pace.

A 2008 study, also cited in the Journal, asked adults distinguish between characters in another language and their trick mirror images. Those who had a chance to write out the original characters with pen and paper had "stronger and longer-lasting recognition" of the proper orientation than those who found the character on a keyboard.

Better To-Do Lists

The role of paper is "changing from information recording and archiving, to a more temporary role of containing transient information," says Jenny Englert, senior cognitive engineer at Xerox, in summarizing some of the research her firm is doing on the future of work and work practice ethnography. In other words, paper still makes for a great to-do list (which, as you’ve just learned, is easier to remember).

A paper to-do list is easier to edit wherever you are, and can contain sketches and special characters without requiring you to learn new software or keyboard tricks. Paper also "provides a visual cue that persists spatially (it doesn’t disappear behind a computer screen)," Englert writes, and can be left right where you need to be reminded of it.

Martin notes, too, that it’s harder, psychologically and physically, to let an item grow stale on a to-do list, especially if you’re getting other items done around it.

"When it comes time to rewrite a messy or mostly done list, merely facing the idea of writing out the same task for the fifth time can be enough motivation for me to do it right then, so it never has to be written down again," she says.

Jobs and Events That Seem Overwhelming

Dr. Sian Beilock’s book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, explores the many, many ways that the most talented people can set themselves up for huge failures at crucial moments. One thing that reliably helped very smart students with major test anxiety was writing about their anxieties to "off-load" them. And that was very specifically noted as "writing." In general, ask a whole bunch of geeks where they write down their thoughts and feelings, and you might be surprised at how many choose pen and paper.

As another Fast Company blogger pointed out, critics and researchers see paper as a medium that allows for deeper thought and focus. By its nature, it’s a single page that you pick up and give a key position to, and you can see exactly how much you have done with it. On another level, paper lacks hyperlinks, search boxes, and notifications, the kinds of context switches author Nicholas Carr believes have rewired and distracted our brains.

Of course, there are lots of ways to digitize your paper thoughts once you’ve nailed them down, if you’d like—Livescribe, Evernote, and tools like the ScanSnap among them. Handwriting and paper’s biggest selling points may be that you don’t have to "switch" or "transition" anything at all. They’re always there, and will be for a long time.

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  • william brown

    I had a hospital president who told me later that the reason he hired me was because I did all my correspondence by hand-written letter.   He thought that was very refreshing and said something good about me.

       --Wm. Brown MD
            Forest, VA

  • Trudy Phillips

    This is an awesome article that makes a case for writing To Do Lists, scratching things off and getting done what needs to be done. Thanks Kevin Purdy.  I use 3"x3" Postit notes to write what I have to accomplish in the near term and Love scratching them off. That is a great incentive for me.

    Can you also tackle organizing so one spends an appropriate time looking at and responding to all of  our social media efforts.  I am overwhelmed with trying to see what is happening on my email, FB, LI, Twitter. It all consumes valuable time when I need to be working/earning money. 

  • himagain

    We only have a few more steps and voice-2-anything will be fully usable. 
    The 2 big barriers are that people won't "train" a system like Dragon NaturallySpeaking and most people today are inarticulate.
    I use a combination of Paper for ideas/layout plans for projects, Dragon and a tiny Sony recorder for dictation (which transcribes into the PC).
    For anyone with needs beyond "thumbing texts" I couldn't recommend a better mix if you are a volume writer.
    Having said that, I know many authors who still write giant novels with a pen or even a 2b pencil and some even insist on using yellow legal pads ..... and sell a million copies......

    The current version of Dragon is as accurate as I ever obtained from using Secretaries in the decades when we had such luxuries. 
    Oh, and two of the best businessmen I ever met all over the world - famous for their business skills both used Shorthand till I introduced them to pocket recorders 40 years ago. Both continued to use both tools. Shorthand is not only silent - but who could read it over your shoulder???   :-)

    (Dictated directly with Dragon) 

  • Jonathan Hoekman

    Fantastic article.  I could not agree more with the points made here.  Matter of fact, I have long been a proponent of task-mastering using a pair of notebooks and a pen.  I always found that I was much more likely to write things down if I had one of my notebooks with me.  And keeping a daily to-do list of tasks and crossing them off as I proceed through them has been highly effective.

    Now, I don't discount the advantages of some software that can really help you automated repeated tasks and keep your to-do lists with you, especially when your phone is always with you, but I still default to the might paper and pen when it comes to truly getting stuff done. 

    Here's a link to an article I wrote a couple years ago on the subject, further explaining my thoughts/process:

    Enjoy and happy task-mastering!

  • Chris Weiland

    I'm caught between both methods of recording and keeping information.  I've found that I retain information much better when I write it down on paper, but I've also found that I often can't get the ideas from my brain to paper quickly enough when writing, so I sometimes need the speed of the keyboard to capture my thoughts.

    I also think that writing provides us a means for self-expression at the letterform level - in the writing and reading of text and sketches - something that ls entirely lost with the keyboard interface.
    The easy distractions available on the computer also present problems for me. It's so easy to be entering text in Evernote and jump over to email or IM, or visit a website, and completely lose my train of thought.

    Finally, there's something to be said for the fact that a paper notebook is its own distinct interface and user experience. With a computer or tablet, your entire informational world is delivered through the same device (screen and keyboard); that single device provides your sole portal to information. Digital interfaces provide many benefits, but I still like the feeling I get from the fact that a paper notebook is a different user experience from a newspaper, which is different from a paperback book.

  • Chris Mason

    Curiously, my experience has been nearly exactly the opposite.  I have found that typing things into a word processor takes down barriers between my brain and the physical world, because when I type I can keep up with what I am thinking.  When I write, it takes so long to get an idea out that I sometimes lose track of what I am trying to say.  There is no doubt that involving the hands while learning is a great strategy, but for composing I am a fan of typing.  Except for to-do lists - I have never typed a to-do list outside of a meeting agenda!  That might change now that I have a hand held PDA - remains to be seen.  Has anyone done any research on software that allows one to speak to the computer, for example, Dragon Speak?  I love it, especially when cold damp weather is wreaking havoc on my hands.

  • william brown

    Being forced to slow down by writing by hand will result in better writing.  You have time to think.  Ask the master, E.B. White.

  • himagain

    Hi Chris,
    Most people cannot master fast (touch) typing and today use little boxes in uncomfortable positions as well.
    I was never able to get over 45 w.p.m. on a keyboard and the natural keyboard errors make it difficult to stay with it.
    I use DRAGON and have done for years - but it only became really good with Version 11.5 .
    By the time I edited errors till then, it wasn't much faster than my typing! (Around 50 w.p.m.) BUT much better to use for my mind. 
    I should also say that I used cheap desktop mikes because I hate headphones. 
    Now I'm comfortably doubling my old speed (90 w.p.m.) 
    HOWEVER, I use a small dictation recorder a Sony SX57  been around for years and not real expensive  - and that's where I get best results. It plugs in to Dragon on the PC and does a very good job. 
    So I have the best of both worlds.
    HOWEVER 2:  I use paper to make all my notes for complex things like designing a Course or Paper Presentation. You can't beat the ability to circle things, underline, bold, cross out, or change to a red pen.

    Summary:  I simply  couldn't do my volume of work without this combination of Paper for creative, Sony anywhere SX57 Recorder and Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5. 
    P.S. This was dictated directly here via Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.5.

  • Don Jarrell

    I'm still caught in the middle.  Totally agree with the flexibility expressed here about pen&paper, but at least I can always *read*, a week later, what I typed.

  • emilie sillett

    I always use pen and paper in lectures, I feel as though when taking notes on a laptop, I'm not fully committing them to memory. Also, I have seen students browsing Facebook, so it is definitely a distraction!
    Taking notes with pen and paper makes the lecture much more interesting, you are able to draw pictures and symbols, which have been proven to be an effective way of revising and learning.

  • alvalyn Lundgren

    I still use a paper planner alongside my digital apps. For me it's quicker to write something down than to key it in, especially if I need to jot it down quickly. Plus, paper and pencil or pen have a tactility that no digital option can compare to.

  • Cable Neuhaus

    I use apps on my smartphone for everything *except* calendaring and note-/sketch-making.  Uh, OK, that's not exactly accurate.  ColorNote ... is great cuz it allows me to use my fingertips to quickly get something down on "paper."  Samsung's Galaxy Note (do I have that name right?), an upcoming device with a 5-inch screen that's tuned to stylus use, may be ideal for those of us who like the hybrid model.  We'll see ...  

  • Larry

    I carry paper and pens to write things.  Though technology (phones, recorders, tablets, computers) can do the job, brain research shows when we write things on paper, there is a better connection to our brain than if we use other tools to jot things down.  I just do it - connection to the brain is a bonus.

  • Gerald Riskin

    That's why I love my iPad app Penultimate (and so do so many others judging from its popularity)

  • Gobinathan Manickam

    I carry a small memo pad which is exactly the same size as my smartphone. I use it to record my ideas, sketch some new design, list my to-dos. It has kept me organized and I've dished out some cool ideas using this low-tech solution. :-)

  • Rahel Bailie

    Completely agree with the author, and wonder about an additional reason that I read about once but have never heard mentioned again. The brain processes reflected light different than absorbed light, so on-screen and on-paper are supposedly treated differently by the brain. I suspect this to be true, and make a conscious effort to write things that I want to "stick".

  • Sean Ellis

    I spend a lot of time commuting, so being on a call, I always then take notes in my Filofax. I've had one since before my first cellphone and it works great for me

  • garrett o donoghue

    i agree with the hand writing, to convert it to an electronic format simply take a pic of the hardcopy with your smart phone and email it!