Going paperless is not the answer

going-paperless-is-not-the-answerThe paperless promise:

To someone who grew up in the 90s it sounds like a futuristic tech fantasy: All your books and notes on one device, instantly accessible, and with perfect recall. It will be as if technology has made your brain obsolete.

Your main task will be merely to add more information to the pile.

Tom Cruise demonstrates the paperless dream in Minority Report.

Tom Cruise demonstrates the paperless dream in Minority Report.

But don’t worry, you’ll barely need to read it, let alone understand it. All this information will be automatically organized, classified, and optimized.

Scarily, this vision is here already.

Do a tinsy bit of googling and you’re certain to find all manner of inventive and clever workflows that automate this, produce that, and encourage you to sign up to the latest hot web tool. You can now achieve the paperless dream.

But is this exciting paperless technology really all that it’s cracked up to be?

I think we should be a little more critical of the technology that’s constantly thrown our way. I’m more guilty than most in buying into the paperless dream, but as I bring one large project to completion and start on the next, I’ve given some close thought to my paperless aspirations.

Here are some thoughts on what paperless is trying to do, the costs of going all-digital, and some of the ways I’ve tried to take the benefits without making the sacrifices.

Your goal:

CC Image courtesy of mrsdkrebs on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of mrsdkrebs on Flickr

Let’s start with a question: besides looking like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, what benefit does committing to going paperless give you?

For you, personally, right now, what’s the attraction of the paperless dream?

Are you looking to make a particular task easier? Or are are hoping something new and shiny will overcome your problems with motivation and procrastination?

“Things would be so much easier if [insert paperless tool here] was part of my workflow…” – Me.

Searching for productivity ‘hacks’ has become a procrastination fetish for many of us. It’s something that I’ve caught myself doing and have aggressively cut down on. There are infinite articles that speak to our anxiety of not being productive enough – we’ve all been down that internet wormhole. [Someone should do a study on the economic cost of our constant search for productivity tips.]

Are the promises that the advice and tools leading us towards the paperless promised-land realistic?

‘You could be so much more productive if only you signed up to our tool.’ – ACME corp.

It’s so easy to buy into that message. Paperless seems to be the way forward, so you ask yourself why you haven’t done these things already. You’re promised that when you get there you’ll be a productivity God/Goddess, so of course you sign up to that new tool.

Before long you’re taking your laptop everywhere, only read on a kindle, and refuse to use a pen. If it’s not digital, it doesn’t matter. (A slightly exaggerated me.)

This might seem like an unrealistic situation and something that you’d never do, but, unchecked, it’s the direction we’re heading in.

The costs of going paperless:


The all-digital, paperless utopia has a darker side.

I don’t want to suggest that everything is awful – there are very obviously useful tools that can massively improve the way you work – but it’s not all milk and cookies.

There are an increasing number of studies that suggest your brain might not like it so much. In fact, much of this research is suggesting that you should go paperless only with extreme caution.

If you’re going to make a commitment to go paperless, you should be sure to understand the sacrifice you’re making by ditching your pen for a stylus and notebook for an iPad.

Here are a few things to consider if, like me, you spend most of your time in front of one screen or another:

  • Taking notes on your computer has been shown to lead to worse comprehension.

The suggestion here is that using pen and paper trumps typing digital notes when remembering conceptual information in the longer term. When you’re typing information up there’s a tendency to transcribe rather than to process and synthesise information in your own way.

Not thinking about your notes before you write them prevents your brain from more fully comprehending the information that you’re attempting to capture.

people should be more aware of how they are choosing to take notes, both in terms of the medium and the strategy‘ – Pam Mueller

(The underlying study is available here)

  • Reading digital text has been shown to affect the ability to recall.

A number of studies have suggested that paper reading boosts recall ability. Paper is a physical object, which means that as you read it your brain can relate to it in different ways. This extra-dimension allows for additional memory capacity. Given that it’s important to recall details to truly ‘know’ a topic, this is certainly something to consider.

‘There is physicality in reading, maybe even more than we want to think about as we lurch into digital reading—as we move forward perhaps with too little reflection. I would like to preserve the absolute best of older forms, but know when to use the new.’ – Maryanne Wolf

ergonomic dimensions, the tactile feedback of holding paper, might actually matter‘ – Anne Mangen

people on paper started to ‘know’ the material more quickly over the passage of time‘ – Kate Garland

  • Using technology increases the tendency to multitask (and procrastinate).

Rather than another cognitive study, in this article Clay Shirky writes about his classroom experience of banning technology in his lectures. His observation is that it’s undeniably harder to focus on an intellectual pursuit when using a computer. Our monkey brains will switch to the cheap rewards of Facebook notifications before too long. This is probably why Freedom App and RescueTime get so much coverage in writing circles.

‘Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.’ – Clay Shirky

A suggestion: Don’t choose between paper and paperless:


These studies give pause for thought. We need to think more carefully about what we are doing to ourselves by going paperless.

Clearly, utilising additional paperless tools does not necessarily mean a better, happier, more productive you.

There are clear costs to removing paper from your life and you do need to think carefully about when you should keep a pen in your hand.

But going paperless isn’t an either/or proposition.

It’s important to realise that there is no obligation to go all-in. Rather than committing to paperless, fudge the issue and do what works for you in certain situations. i.e. It’s ok to buy paperbacks and ebooks.

Don’t beat yourself up for not having a totalised, unified, and seamless paperless system – just make sure you can keep track of your notes wherever you put them. Taking notes on paper is going to work best in certain situations; i.e. when you are hoping to recall data in the longer term. It’s more important to have a reliable collection system than for all your writing to be born digital.

Reading and writing technologies have always evolved – and coexisted:


Changing Our Textual Minds: Towards a Digital Order of Knowledge is a great book that charts the history of reading technologies. It prompted me to think about all the technologies I use when I read and write.

One of my big takeaways was that these technologies have always existed side-by-side, and with varying degrees of tension between them. But that’s okay.

We’re lucky to have these technologies to choose from in different situations.

To deal with some of the issues that recent studies have highlights, I’d like to see the bundling of reading technologies. Amazon has a feature where you can get the audio version of an ebook with a discount. I’d love to get a free digital version when I buy the paper version. The physical copy would be to read, the digital copy would be to have on file for recall and analysis.

In the past, I’ve digitised books after reading them in physical form and I definitely remember them better than the books I first read digital. I’d like to do more of that.

My solution to the paperless problem:


The evidence seems fairly clear that thinking on paper is better. Better in terms of recall and understanding.

But digital storage makes search and retrieval so much easier.

What to do?!

My own solution is to use my Black n’ Red spiral notebook for most of my jotting. I can scribble, doodle, and then tear out pages to digitise if necessary. (I use Scannable for this.)

In practice, I digitise meeting notes and semi-structured brain-dumps, but not to-do lists or rambling free writing.

I’ll make the effort to transcribe my handwritten book notes for larger, multi-year projects that benefit from text search. This includes my PhD, which I organize with Devonthink.

I mark-up PDF’s with Goodreader, using a stylus to write on the PDF. I make the digital file my own with highlights, notes, and doodles. Marginalia is more satisfying and memorable than appending typed-text notes.

[Side Note: Marginalia, a lost art]

When I want to take in a book – its information and its arguments – in a lot of detail, I will buy the hard copy. Intuitively, I know that I remember the content better, and the science seems to suggest that is indeed the case.

There is nothing like taking a red pen to a new book and making it yours. (Tim Parks thinks we should all read with a pen in our hand.)

My kindle is now mostly for fun books. The highlight feature is far too easy, there’s no real brain processing, and I rarely remember what I chose to highlight. When I do read ‘important’ books on the kindle, I make handwritten notes to slow the process down and aid comprehension.

It’s a difficult balance to make the most of the incredible tech tools we have available, but not to take so many shortcuts that the brain suffers.

I now try to read just as many articles on the effects of e-reading and handwriting than productivity-porn articles. That gives me some way to work out which paperless tools will add convenience, and which will adversely affect my recall and understanding.


Open-book-at-a-beach-001Will grabbing the new shiny paperless technology really advance your personal and professional goals?

This isn’t about restraint or frugality, it’s about making sure that you’re doing your brain a favour. If you’ve made the effort to foster the admirable habits of regular reading and writing, don’t sell yourself short.

There’s a balance to be had, and it’s different for everyone. I still find using Devonthink to organize information for my writing projects is incredibly useful, but I’m no longer deliberately restricting my paper production just to get digital notes into my database. The science is indicating that using pen and paper and reading physical books have too many benefits to ignore.

I’m trying to think more carefully about when I should use my paperless tools, and when it’s better to switch back to the old-fashioned way. Paperless is not always the answer and I strongly doubt paper will disappear anytime soon, at least from my desk.


The Problem With the Web and E-Books Is That There’s No Space for Them

Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction

Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension

A Weapon for Readers

A Kindle Designer’s Touching Online Memorial to the Marginalia Scribbled in Books

Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read?

The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens

Reading Literature on Screen: A Price for Convenience?

Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away

5 replies
  1. Bjorn says:

    They only use one note-taking modality in their research ‘ note/summarizing’

    What about interactive mindmaps? Add sound clips, video’s next to note taking.

    what about programmes like docear?

  2. Mark says:

    I really appreciated this article. I’m beginning grad school (studying theology) and reconsidering my note taking approach. For the last 2 years of undergrad I took all my notes on paper in a 5-subject spiral per semester. I knew where each class was, it’s easy to look up, and I can easily move the contents from each semester from place to place.

    Now, I’m running into limits of that system. I’ll often think “we talked about X in Y class”, pull up the notebook, then be unable to find the thing I want to reference. The spirals are pretty hard to refer back to. Going forward I’ll be giving frequent talks and teaching classes, so it’d be nice to easily search for ideas I wrote previously without fruitless hunting. I think the paper notes will be unmanageable after 3 more years of school.

    I’m considering switching digital notes so they can be easily found later. Search for a term and everything I’ve written on the topic will come up alongside any article I’ve read about it. I already clip articles, why not include class notes and paper research? I was set on this system, until I read this article. I considered taking a picture of hand-written notes, but I’m pretty sure OCR would be unable to read my handwritting. Am I doing myself a disservice by typing notes?

    Lastly, if you have any dog in the fight I’d appreciate an opinion. Currently all my stuff is in Evernote. I have years of random notes, book quotes, and news clips. It’s perfect for me to throw everything in without any real notebook sorting, use tags – “Phillosophy”, “tech”, “economics”, “Productivity’, etc. – to categorize, and use the search to scroll through all notes. I’m afraid, though, that EN is too disjointed for efficient class notes. I’m considering OneNote because it’s getting good press and seems designed for organized data taking, but it lacks the tagging and search features I’m used to. Have you used both programs? Is it a bad idea to use both for different purposes? I don’t have a tablet, so class notes would all be taken on laptop keyboard.

  3. Patti Bender says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts. Have you read “The Social Life of Paper” by Malcolm Gladwell? While still processing, the ability to arrange and rearrange paper on surfaces relieves short-term memory load and lets relationships emerge through trial and error. That’s the difficulty with digital organization; if you already knew the relationships, that would be fine, but when they are still elements to be mixed in an unknown arrangement, paper facilitates… to a point. My current project has more than 5000 pages of notes–too much to arrange, too much to digitize in this lifetime. I arrange subsets in notebooks. For synthesis, I use a great big piece of paper: Jot, think, draw lines, circle stuff, think, highlight with color, think, go for a walk, leave it awhile, come back, and usually, by then, an organizing principle or deeper understanding has emerged. Today, I’m writing this comment while procrastinating from organizing the mess that must be corralled. Onward and upward.

    • Nick Blackbourn says:

      First, thanks for procrastinating here! I will seek out the Gladwell article with great interest. I think that is spot on: with digital text, you lose the physicality of knowledge and therefore different, tactile ways for your mind to understand and process it. Summarising, rearranging, and walking away sounds all too familiar. Good luck with the project!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] I do like my Kindle. Very much. It’s easy to slip in a bag. It means you can carry a bundle of books, and I feel safe when I have a bundle of books on my person. The backlight is useful. The battery life is long. The balance between screen-reading and paper-reading is something I’ve thought about a lot (here’s a post on the promise of going paperless). […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.