Digital vs paper: which is the best way to take notes?

For the last several years, I’ve had this internal debate about digital vs paper: which is the best way to take notes and keep records?

For my video-loving friends, you can watch this content instead, here:

Digital, of course, means keeping notes on an electronic device such as a phone or computer. Paper is self-explanatory.

To survey the scale of this decision, it is appropriate to outline the bulk of things I write down during daily activities.

  • To-do lists
  • Journal entries
  • Notes from things such as
    • Networking meetings
    • Client meetings
  • To buy lists
  • To research lists
  • Periodic reviews (how things went this week, this month, quarter, year, etc.)
  • Notes to friends and family
  • Various reminders
  • Notes from classes I take, both online and in person

I think that covers most things, though there are certainly some I’ve overlooked.

Here’s the question, and it seems awfully daunting (seemed?): Digital vs paper: which is the best?

To give you a sneak peek into my thought process, for years I thought digital was the answer. I’ll get more into that in a minute.

First, I’d counter that the question itself is worded in an unhelpful way. It presupposes that there is one right answer – that a black and white solution is available to be found.

If I’ve learned anything in this life, it’s that true black and white answers are rarer than you think. Just about everything is more complicated and stuffed with nuance that is ready to be explored, making decisions more difficult, but life more enriched and intellectually fulfilling. I’m getting a little more philosophical than the question at hand, please excuse me. 🙂

Pros vs cons of digital vs paper for taking and organizing notes

To help think more clearly about the decision, I’ll layout some pros and cons of each.

Pros of using paper

  • Studies suggest that you connect better with the content and remember more when you handwrite (look here or here for more info)
  • It’s easier to keep your content private

Cons of using paper

  • It takes longer to write than tapping out notes on a keyboard (at least for many of us who came of age in the digital era)
  • Your writing hand can get tired often before you’ve gotten all the thoughts out. Once I have to take a “hand break,” I lose momentum
  • To keep your notes with you, you have to lug a notebook around
  • Writing things on paper generates physical clutter. Which requires making decisions about what to do with it and filing. I hate filing.

Pros of using digital

  • Faster to write; potentially more efficient
  • With the use of note-taking apps like Evernote or OneNote, you can reference any information on your computer or phone — super handy for portability and taking notes on the fly while out and about
  • Depending on which app you use, there are note taking templates, which cure the dreaded blank page syndrome (WHERE DO I START WHEN STARING AT A BLANK PAGE?)
  • Superior for tasks and reminders, if you are used to using things like phone timers, Google calendar, etc.
  • Easier to share and archive information for quick retrieval

Cons of using digital

  • Information is less secure – it is subject to things like:
    • Computer viruses
    • Hacking
    • Theft
    • Equipment failure
  • A majority of information is stored “in the cloud”
    The cloud sounds fanciful and nice, but we must remember that it is nothing more than someone else’s computer.
    Do we trust having all our information on someone else’s computer?
  • Do you actually read through all the terms and conditions on software agreements? Are you one of the fourteen people on earth who does? How do you know what’s hidden in there if you don’t read it?
  • There are often fees involved in software and data storage – notebooks are cheap!
  • Digital clutter is a real problem too — organization systems are required. The silver lining is that digital files have a hope of being searchable.

So where do we go from here?

The recent assurance I mentioned at the top that digital was the way to go has been shaken in certainty by the cons I listed above. If it weren’t for the external threats beyond my control, I’d be more inclined to go all digital.

Ironically, I just bought a paper planner for the first time since … I can’t remember. With all my zeal for building systems of organization with my digital files, I’m reconsidering things. Why would I do that? A couple of reasons.

  1. This particular planner was recommended highly by a colleague. The features she mentioned it had were precisely things I have been trying to track on my own with my fledgling note taking system in Evernote. I’m not knocking my system; it’s pretty air-tight when it comes to managing content for my networking and client work. What is lacking, is my systems for my own personal growth, goals review, regular progress reviews and such.
  2. Since my own systems are a little more random, I figured trying something different was in order. This may help me keep all my personal and professional development thoughts in one place.

Remember my tangent above about how things aren’t always black and white?

As it relates to this struggle, I realize now that there doesn’t need to be a cut and dry solution. I am free to try different things, observe how they work, and adjust as I go. Hence the paper planner.

The plan moving forward

Here’s how I see things shaking out for the next few months. I’m going to keep using Evernote for tracking information, links, etc. for things that are easily categorized and are working well within the system I’ve created.

I’m going to give the planner a fair shake for its daily reflections and periodic review. If I find myself less than satisfied with how it works, I’ll resume the search for the right balance.

The gray areas that just are:

  • I’ll still use my old trusty notebook for in person networking meetings.
  • If I’m meeting with a client in person, I often take my laptop along to take notes in Evernote (still the most efficient for me)
  • Personal journaling beyond the prompts in my planner will still be up for grabs: sometimes they are in a notebook, sometimes in Evernote. I would like to settle on an ultimate destination, but as you can see from my lists above, I haven’t made a decision yet.
    • The biggest hang up for me with random journal entries on different media is knowing where to find them to review with no consistent system

In closing, a paraphrase from James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits,” which has really impacted my thinking recently:

“The best preparation is not necessarily to be precisely prepared for any situation, but rather, a mindset that can handle uncertainty.”

The point of all this? I’m on a continual journey to optimize my processes for the greatest effectiveness. Notice I didn’t say efficiency. Cold, calculated efficiency used to be my goal, and I still value it highly. But sometimes effectiveness is extremely inefficient, and yet I find it to be a higher calling, for the glory of God.

Though all my processing about my processes, I’d love to hear about YOUR process in a comment. 🙂 Do you have a preference between paper and digital? Why? What works for you?

In any case, thank you for reading this post. I appreciate you.

(p.s. This post contains affiliate links.)

4 responses to “Digital vs paper: which is the best way to take notes?”

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think this will be an ongoing
    discussion. Many digital natives are finding such joy in bullet journaling or the variations of paper crafts that connect person to paper via crayon/ pen/paper/ paint/ etc. I am paper for all things global (long range planning and thinking things through) and have appreciated the ease of using digital when being more effective (yea! thank you for the distinction!) with support for the project I am working on. I (and I am not making this up) still default to the lovely 11×17 size post- it notes (yes– they exist) to map out a word web to help me deliver the ultimate conscience and effective report (summary of conversation ) that will lead to the proposal or scope of work. IMHO: Paper is essential, digital is necessary.

    1. I did NOT know there is an 11×17 post-it! Wow!

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It sounds like you’ve wrestled through the same things and come up with a system that works for you. Fabulous!

  2. Summer, this is a very noteworthy blog! Fun to read. Like you, I use both paper and digital, and both work well for me. My TO DO list and my calendar are paper: easy to carry, never need batteries or good WI-FI. I also use paper to draft such things as greeting cards which, in my mind, is warmer than sending an email. If I could find an ink pen that had Spell Check and Grammar Corrections, I would do much more writing on paper 🙂 Digital is my choice when my content may need to be edited, duplicated, or distributed. Blessings and cheers!

    1. I like your clear division of tasks between the two media. Thank you for reading, and for your thoughtful comment!

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