Before You Go Paperless

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Professional teams have a problem. They’re full of smart people, but big ideas and clever insights end up lost to the depths of individual minds.

Smart people have problems, too. Their memory is fallible, their imagination finite, and their acuity grows fuzzy as half-formed thoughts wriggle out into the light of day.

The Internet is littered with tools aimed at all these needs—helping people remember, teams share, and everyone express themselves clearly—but there’s a cheap, proven tool that’s at least as good as any of them. I’m referring, of course, to paper.

The mind beyond the brain

Let’s take a brief detour to one of the wilder frontiers of philosophy, where the local dogma holds up the mind as more than the sum of its neurons. When you reach for a calculator to calculate some large numbers, the argument goes, your mind may briefly encompass the device. Rather than recalling the first few words of the Tale of the Heike, an epic chronicle of Heian Japan, you might enlist Wikipedia’s help:

The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things

That one actually came from memory–a small souvenir from an unusually gripping history course–but most of the time I don’t remember most things. That’s where paper comes in: an analog brain-extender equally at home transfering our ideas to other readers, or to pick up where memory leave off.

Thinking out loud

I started taking notes in school, partly to extend the limits of my brain but mostly to keep my mind from wandering. Since it saw me through to graduation, I’ve kept with it, even though abstract ideas like “output” have replaced a single focus (“pass the exam”) and the reason to take notes has evolved.

These days, it’s all about communication. While taking personal notes can feel like a weird place to start communicating, consider the negative: if a thought can’t be distilled into a coherent note-to-self, odds are that it won’t make sense to anyone else. But even if it’s never shared directly, writing is an opportunity to collect, tidy, synthesize, and wrangle a careening train of thought into something fit for public consumption.

Notes aren’t simply a test of understanding, either. Besides exposing unclear thinking, language provides rules, cleverly disguised as grammar, to help structure and clarify it. Language won’t solve conceptual problems, but it can guide bursts of inspiration into some semblance of practical reality.

But, paper?

Of course, all the benefits of taking notes are available free-of-charge from [insert your favorite text editor here]. But there are plenty of reasons to stick to good old paper and ink, too. Among them:

  • No distractions. The steady drip of digital catnip that flows from Internet-connected devices isn’t supported (“please upgrade your browser”) on paper.

  • Batteries are always charged. And since paper works out of radio range, a notebook can come camping, on cross-country train trips, or anywhere you might be header.

  • Social grace. A notebook is welcome in many settings–meetings, say–where social conventions frown on the digital competition.

  • Freedom. Paper doesn’t have programmers or any of the restrictions a programmer might impose. The same page may be home to a circuit diagram, filter algorithm, a signal, formal logic, sketches of the cafe, and even a few words.

And of course paper has its shortcomings. But digital transcription is small challenge to a reasonably capable typist. If the papers need transcribing, it shouldn’t take long.

Off we go

I hope you’re ready to put down your laptop and pick up a pen. Which you pick up is entirely up to you, but two observations may help simplify the field.

  1. Notes don’t need a fancy notebook. The bullet journal tells a terrific story, but the 12x markup over your garden-variety composition notebook may not be worth the investment. My notebook comes with me everywhere, and by the time its pages are filled it will be crumpled, stained, soaked in coffee or an unexpected cloudburst, and not depreciated one penny for it.

  2. A good pen is worth every penny. Sure, the Bic pen that followed you home from the pub will do in a pinch, but since you can buy smooth lines and a comfortable fit for less than a couple of beers, it’s well worth the investment.

Then write! Brainstorm ideas, take notes, scribble designs, and scratch them out again. Adjust and distill your thinking until it’s fit for ingestion by others. You may be surprised how your thoughts sound written down–but that’s the whole point.

A blank sheet of paper is a challenge to shepherd our thoughts from the familiar comfort of our minds and into the world beyond. It may not have the realtime features of its latest, greatest skeumorphic replacement, but it remains our oldest tool for transcending time and space. When taking time to think, record, and share, two millenia of history won’t lead you astray.

Why not give paper a go?