On The Creative Merits Of Paper

The digital age has made a habit of mocking things still done in pen and paper, chiding them as antiquated and superseded. Well, in most cases, the digital age would be right to do that, especially when it comes to transmitting data.

I recently switched my GTD1 process from relying on technical implementation via OmniFocus on all my devices to plain paper and folders. This is a huge step down in usability and theoretical productivity, however I find that I am much more productive now, maintaining everything in paper, than I ever was using OmniFocus for managing all my stuff. I am more aware of the current situation, I get surprised by less and I get stressed less. And I don’t think my situation is an anomaly, and much more related to the fact that paper is so much less “efficient” than keeping track digitally.

In his book Smarter, Better, Faster2 Charles Duhigg introduces the concept of dis-fluency. In a nutshell, if a piece of information is just a bit inaccessible, and something you have to “work for”, then we retain that piece of information much better when we do reach insight. If you teach someone a word, and then make them use it in a sentence, they will remember that word better than if you had just told them the word and its meaning. (This, in addition to the Generation Effect3 is also why you will remember class a lot better if you take notes in paper instead of on your laptop.)

Dis-fluency, I think, is critical to why paper (or also whiteboards for that matter, as a lot of software developers are fond of using) works so much better for concrete processes: because it takes more effort to write out a thought than it takes to type it (especially for people who type a lot, say, a software developer), we have more time to think about what we’re writing, as we’re writing it. This is crucial for topics GTD deals with, like project planning or thinking about how the next conference talk should go down.

There are more effects than just that: Introducing more friction to noting things down also reduces the temptation to say “yes” to requests for your time and attention, because you are much more aware of just how much you have on your plate when you see multiple pages of paper for your “projects” list than when OmniFocus tells you you have 150 actions available.

Additionally, it corrals your focus. Paper has no notifications or tempting RSS feeds or Hacker News page refreshes. If your focus lapses and your mind wanders, it is much, much more likely to wander to a topic related to what you are thinking or writing about, making it valuable to let that happen instead of chiding yourself for being distracted.

On top of that, paper is a concrete “thought artifact”, for lack of a better term, that must be dealt with somehow. If you have some kind of infrastructure set up for it (for example, a general-reference system as described in GTD), it is much more likely that you will revisit this artifact than it is likely you will read a dusty file that lurks in a corner of your Dropbox.

GTD in paper is not all sunshine and roses, but mitigable. In particular, paper is not good at any kind of recurring task, for example, changing the sand in your cat’s litter box. It’s also pretty bad for being reminded of something at a certain time4, say, deciding whether or not you want to go to a meetup. My solution to this is to write a tool for myself that takes care of all that, once it’s done. It works via flat files, and plain-text email, something that makes it both, device-independent, and easy to manipulate.

In short, I think paper is underrated for creative processes – I may be a programmer that spends a lot of his time in front of screens typing into a mono-spaced terminal emulator, but most of my planning happens on paper, because I remember it better.

  1. Getting Things Done, a book, or more accurately, a philosophy, invented and popularized by David Allen. 

  2. I personally liked the book, however I am hesitant to openly recommend it or call it effective. While it worked for me, pop-psychology books like it usually get a bad reputation for a reason. 

  3. Wikipedia defines it as the idea that reading is much less effective for actually learning something than achieving the insight yourself. 

  4. GTD has something for this, a so-called Tickler File, that gives you items you specifically deferred for that day. It is useful, however I find it rather cumbersome to use every day and it also provided insufficient granularity in times - you get one batch of reminders per day, not when you want or need them.