Good Reasons to Go Back to Taking Notes by Hand


I’ve got a reputation as a digital guy. My iPad is always close at hand. I manage projects with hideous efficiency using I leverage services like to plan magical vacations, and then use Apple Maps and Google Maps to navigate unfamiliar territory like a local.

My desk at work is never littered with paper. I photograph handouts, business cards, and PowerPoint slides, adding them to digital files. At work, whenever someone hands me something printed, they do so apologetically, saying, “I know, I know, you prefer digital, but …” I really do have a paperless workflow.

So you can imagine the surprise yesterday when people saw me scribbling handwritten notes in a tidy little Moleskine notebook. (People actually stopped me and asked, “Did you lose your iPad?”) In truth, I was pretty surprised, myself.

But here’s the deal: in “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades” (link – New York Times), Maria Konnikova surveys the growing evidence that there’s something about writing notes by hand that dramatically impacts our ability to recall what we’ve written:

“When we write, a unique mental circuit is automatically activated … and it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize … Learning is made easier … When children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas … For adults, typing may be a fast and efficient alternative … but that very efficiency may diminish our ability to process new information.”

A recent study by Princeton University (link – Science Daily) may suggest why: when we are busily typing notes, we slip into what I think of as “transcription mode.” We take copious, accurate, almost verbatim notes (I know I do!), but our recall of those notes is dramatically lower than our recall of handwritten ones.

My personal experience validates this. Thanks to a disturbingly fast and accurate typing speed, I can transcribe meetings almost word-for-word in real time. But at the end of such a session, I’m aware that, while I became a conduit for the words I captured, funneling them very efficiently onto the page, I don’t recall very much of what I’ve written. It’s like I’m in a fugue state, fingers flying, but with my recall mechanism turned off.

My penchant for digital note taking has impacted me in another important way that has taken some time to detect. All those notes I take, from meeting minutes to references to Internet articles that caught my eye, are, by habit, shoved into Evernote. Evernote makes a seductive promise (“Remember everything!”), but what I’ve found over time is that, while I push a lot of stuff into the “everything box” that Evernote is … I remember very little of it.

It’s all still there … but I rarely *do* anything with it. By contrast, back when I used to jot notes by hand, I had a startling ability to recall esoteric facts and the sources where I’d found them.

So: a personal experiment begins. I’m back to taking notes by hand, using a very simple, streamlined system. It requires minimal effort to maintain. And I plan to see, over the next thirty days, how this reversion to an old habit impacts my perceived ability to recall the notes I’ve taken.

One day into it, I can tell you this: there is a tremendous satisfaction in carrying a Moleskine notebook again … and a curious pleasure in filling page after page with lovingly-structured hand-written notes.

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.


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    • I used the notebook faithfully for three months. I started having issues, though, when needing to refer back to notes for details from meetings. Searching the hand-written notes proved difficult when the fact I needed was from a meeting more than a month or two back … and, with time, I drifted back to my gadget-centric model of note-taking again.

      I do feel like paper is intrinsically better for note-taking with recall. I just wish my handwritten archives were easier to search. (I know, I know. I can scan the pages into Evernote, which makes them text-searchable. So far, I’ve not had much luck integrating that process into my daily routine.)

Who Wrote This?

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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