There is something special about a fresh sheet of paper and nice pen.
And when it comes to goal setting and planning I love to use paper instead of one of my digital devices.
Perhaps it is because writing it down on paper makes it seem more concrete, and that spurs me into action. Or maybe because it is harder to cut and paste, things seem a little more permanent – writing on paper forces me to really think about what I want to write. But regardless of the reasons, I think success and paper notes go hand in hand.
Throughout my whole career as a software engineer to tech executive and CEO, I have survived on good note taking. I take my notes seriously, and in return, they help me be taken more seriously. Good notes make me more successful, more organized, and more amazing at my job.
Why I use paper
I use technology all the time to make my work life easier. But when it comes to planning, tracking progress, and goal-setting, I prefer good old-fashioned paper and pencil.
It’s not that a digital app couldn’t be created to meet my needs (I’m actually a big fan of Evernote). However, I feel as though I lose something when my thoughts are funneled directly into a word processor. I feel less connected to my ideas.
Paper allows my thoughts—however messy they might be—to expand and make broad connections. I can draw them out, cross them out, crumple them up, and take them everywhere.
Not only is paper more versatile, but it also keeps me focused on the project at hand. Digital tools make it harder to stay focused and to connect with other people.
Laptops and tablets may be becoming more acceptable in the boardroom, but there’s always the sneaking suspicion that the note-taker is answering email instead of paying attention. Frankly, it’s a little rude and a lot distracting. But taking notes by hand shows respect. It’s a very clear way to let the speaker know that you find what he or she has to say valuable.
Paper notes also allow you to think through ideas more thoroughly. Psychology researchers compared levels of comprehension demonstrated by digital and paper note-takers. Although students who took notes digitally were able to capture more information than the students who took notes by hand, the paper note-takers consistently performed better on tests of conceptual and applied understanding.
The researchers suggested that taking notes by hand forces the brain to slow down and engage in some heavy “mental lifting.” Instead of transcribing notes verbatim, the paper note-taker is forced to actively listen and summarize information in a word or phrase. This cognitive processing instills more meaning into key phrases, which triggers memory. Digital note-taking doesn’t use the same amount of mental energy and so the information is easier to lose right away.
How paper notes can make you more successful too
Paper notes do have their disadvantages. Sticky notes and unorganized to-do lists might help me remember something I need to get done, but the chaos they cause can get in the way of doing deep, thoughtful work that makes a difference.
For this kind of work, I need an organized system for planning my days and weeks out in advance. Using my previous yearly, monthly, and weekly goals to prioritize, I block chunks of time for focused activity.
I call this process time blocking, and it was one of the big reasons I decided to create the Volt Planner (which was originally called the Spark Notebook). I needed a single tool that could combine the elements of a beautiful notebook and a great planner — something with wonderful productivity techniques built in for setting goals or capturing big ideas, but versatile in design for planning monthly, weekly, and daily schedules that fluctuate.
While shopping for this dream planner, I discovered that it didn’t exist. Most products I tried did one function really well, but couldn’t meet all of my needs.
Notebooks with goal-planners, journaling pages, and organization systems were bright pink and looked like a scrapbook (or something akin to the paper version of Windows 95). On the other hand, the sleek, modern notebooks I found lacked all functionality and served only as appointment books or calendars. They were simply a collection of the same lined pages over and over again, leaving me no system for differentiating simple to-do items from laser-focused work sessions, product research from yearly goals.
And so I decided to stop searching and starting building it: the perfect notebook.
In November 2014, I launched a Kickstarter project with the hope that I could produce enough notebooks to break even on the sizable cost of printing. My goal was to raise $14,000; by the end of the campaign, I had raised $138,572. I knew I had struck a nerve.
Why was this project so successful? I believe that, despite the huge leaps made in technology, people still crave that pen-to-paper process, which is so crucial to focussing attention and processing information.
By taking the time to plan out your schedule by hand — reflecting on the previous week and thinking through the next — you actually gain more productive hours than if you were to automate your tasks and appointments. Allocating your time smartly helps you avoid getting sucked into the tedious tasks that don’t actually accomplish much. It forces you to focus on your top priorities for an amount of time that reflects their importance.
As I have watched my love of paper grow from a modest Kickstarter project into a thriving business, I am reminded that the best work isn’t usually the fastest work. The work that truly changes your life takes time, careful attention, and patience.
And that, to me, is why paper will always stay relevant in this digital world.