Why I Use Pen and Paper Notebooks AND Digital Tools To Take Notes | Beth's Blog

Why I Use Pen and Paper Notebooks AND Digital Tools To Take Notes

Personal Productivity

My colleague, Alexandra Samuel, wrote a provocative post on the HBR blog titled, “Dear Colleague, Put Down Your Notebook” where she makes an argument for switching to digital note taking tools like Evernote is more efficient than taking notes on paper. (She recently authored an excellent  e-book on how to use Evernote).

I agree with Alexandra’s point about efficiency, but I don’t always think that digital note taking is always effective for certain situations.    I tend to use both.       For example,  I like digital note taking tools when I’m capturing the “to dos” from meetings to make decisions and when I’m doing research online for a blog post or prepare curriculum.   I will sometimes take notes on my laptop during a conference session or webinar if I am planning to do a write up.  Since I can type 120 words per minutes, I can capture complete quotes and summarize key points very quickly.

However, there are times when I do prefer my pens, markers, and paper notebooks.   I prefer these tools when I’m capturing a discussion from a meeting that focused on a designing a program or a reflective conversation.   If the notes need to be in a digital format,   the process of transcribing them gives me added reflection and thought time to digest the ideas.  Many times I take notes in a visual format like mind mapping that helps me better understand the conversation as it unfolds.     I have practiced using my iPad with drawing apps, but I’m not quite fluent enough in it.

I have noticed that analog and digital methods of note taking or knowledge capture seem to make me think in different ways.    I suspect that depending on whether your type or write – it some how gets encoded into your brain differently.   I also wonder if there is an impact on being creative?   It also comes down to what you’re used to.     I like being “bilingual” and using both ways to take notes.  So, Alexandra, I’ll keep my pen and paper notebooks.

How do you take notes?  All digital?  Only paper and pencil?  A combination?   What are your favorite note taking tools?


30 Responses

  1. glennette says:

    I am with you. I absolutely love Evernote! It is a great tool for capturing digital content, quick notes and other information. But, nothing beats my Moleskine and a fine point pen for capturing conversations and ideas.

  2. Denise Osso says:

    Like you, I use all the modalities – including a fountain pen – depending on the creative context. I’ve considered cuneiform but the dust is an issue in meetings.

  3. Mark Rollins says:

    Great post. Your blog is great. I am a huge fan of Evernote. I use it for everything. For client meeting notes I use this then email back to me and save in client electronic file. I sometimes share with client to make sure we are on same page.
    I also us it to store all my new ideas, track projects,information I need all the time. I now have one place to go for all of it. I have been thinking about using Moleskine. Glennette seems to like it

  4. Mike Haley says:

    I totally agree with you. I take my iPad with me to most meetings and I can type faster than I can print, however like you say when I print notes it somehow gets encoded in my brain differently andI remember it better.

    I believe that when I am typing notes the words go in my ears and out my hands without thinking of the context as much. However if the meetings are exercise driven I am forced to think about the context in more detail and I can retain the information better no matter what kind of note taking apparatus I use. In any means, if it was a good presentation I normally go back and look at the notes later to help me retain what I learned.

  5. Traci P says:

    First, thanks for your awesome blog. While this is my first time commenting, I read it often and recommend it to my nonprofit friends.

    Like you, I use it all. As an iPad newbie, I use it more the longer I have it (got it in December 2012). However, I am not as fast capturing thoughts with an iPad as I am paper and pencil in most cases. I also have pretty decent handwriting which enables Evernote’s OCR to be extremely accurate in searching my handwritten notes that I scan into Evernote to have a backup copy.

  6. Raye Shilen says:

    I find myself using different methods for different tasks. When brainstorming, I want paper and markers (with lots of colors!). During a meeting, I like using a laptop because my fingers type faster than my hands write. To-Do lists are split between Evernote and a paper notebook. Combining the two mediums seems to keep things fresh for me, and it helps me remember ideas better by providing that mental jog to WHAT I was doing when I first learned/thought about the subject.

  7. Graeme says:

    My preference is to use my eye-pad aka, pen and notepad when in meetings, however use Evernote at seminars etc.

    I feel its good for people to see youre paying attention in meetings, tablets, laptops may not always show this.

  8. I have found myself very focused on Evernote because it’s so easy to capture notes along with multimedia content at the same time. But in a small conversation, paper and pen in a super nice notebook that I won’t lose is important for me. Often I find myself taking those notes and moving them into Evernote later at night. I love Traci P’s idea of just scanning in the notes. That would be even easier!

    One thing I have noticed? I used to use Twitter as a live location to tweet out information and use it as a live note taking space based on the event’s hashtag. I’ve found I don’t do that as often as I used to… I’m better at taking full notes when I’m not struggling to fit it into 140 characters. I leave my iPhone open to tweet a thought or two and take photos for my Evernote thoughts but my iPad is where I use Evernote. It’s crazy multitasking… but I like it that way.

  9. alina says:

    I recently saw a Moleskine that can sync to Evernote. Excited to try it out – seems like the best of both worlds!

  10. Stephen Hryncewicz says:

    I do recommend using a combination of CamiApp and Evernote for bridging the gap between analogue and digital note taking. CamiApp is a lot cheaper than Moleskine/Evernote and, I believe, a lot more useful. It is possible to set up shortcuts to send notes to any combination of Evernote, Dropbox or email.

  11. Totally agree on the value of a dual-approach.

    Beyond that, shows that handwriting notes (vs. typing notes) boosts understanding for those who are kinesthetic learners (learn well by doing, vs. reading or listening.

    I’m 50-50 I’d say, but handwriting notes definitely ups my processing of the info. More here:

    Thanks, Beth, for articulating the value of each tool so clearly. I think it’s a highly-personalized choice but mine mirrors yours closely.

  12. Clarification, more precisely kinesthetic learners’ understanding is boosted with body movement (i.e. more in handwriting, than in typing)

  13. Ben Ziegler says:

    I generally agree with the hybrid approach you propose, Beth. I thought your point re: transcribing and reflection important. Can we obtain the same reflection while sitting at our e-device? Or, is a transitional step, transcription, key? You’re making me self-reflect. And, that’s good. 🙂

  14. Beth says:

    Nancy: We are a lot of alike in many ways. I can’t help but wonder how much is generational too?

    Ben: Self-reflection is important .. and maybe I’m just old or old school, but hard for me to when typing … unless I verbalize my response and type what I’m talking – sort of what I’m doing now ….

  15. […] My colleague, Alexandra Samuel, wrote a provocative post on the HBR blog titled, "Dear Colleague, Put Down Your Notebook" where she makes an argument for switching to digital note taking tools like Evernote is more efficient than taking notes on…  […]

  16. Renee Zau says:

    I’ve recently become a fan of Evernote, not so much for the note-taking process but for what I can do with the information later. It is much easier for me to copy/paste bits into calendar events and reminders, share notes with other people, and “always have it with me” either on my iPhone, iPad, or laptop.

    As much as I love pen and paper, I don’t always have the right notebook with me. The freedom that comes with having information “in the cloud” and available anytime won me over.

  17. Carl Cohen says:

    Thank you for defending Pen and Paper!

    Creativity and brainstorming is hampered by digital media. Everyone is so quick to keystroke (digitize) meeting content, that no one is thinking, challenging or processing what is being said or presented. The ACLU-NJ whiteboard is what more people’s meeting notes should be looking, but I can’t seem to do this in Evernote.

    Evernote is great for to-do lists, but I contribution to my non-profits is in creatively re-thinking their problems.

  18. Beth says:

    Renee and Carl – I actually agree with both of you and that’s why I take notes both on pen and paper and in the cloud. There’s benefits to both – and to having fluency in both.

  19. hi beth

    are you using sketchbook pro? there are so many drawing programs out there and i have a boxful of them on every device i own since i am always sketching.

    i am a rockaway girl and ever since superstorm sandy, i have put away all molecular, material, perishable tools and turned my eyes to the cloud. there is nothing like losing what you value to a wall of seawater to make you rethink what loss is, what is truly important and what is worth keeping.

    i am a stylus to ipad convert and while i miss the feel and the flow of pen to paper, i am now focused on the energizing challenge of mastering a new genre of text and image.

    for example, here’s my piece on the power of the seven word sketch:

    hope you and yours are doing well,

    hoong yee

  20. Brett R says:

    I use a mixture of keyboard and paper. At conferences or meetings, I prefer pen and paper. I like the intimacy. I use a compact binder/notebook that is great for pen and paper note taking (http://www.bitesizebschool.com/blog/how-to-save-all-those-great-product-ideas-no-matter-where-you-go/).

    I don’t like traditional notebooks since you can’t organize your thoughts. The right kind of notebook is extremely important when using paper.

  21. […] the end of January I read Beth Kanter’s blog post about how she takes notes. (She writes a great blog–highly recommended.) She pointed to an ebook about using Evernote, […]

  22. I love the “bilingual” note taking approach.
    Sometimes there’s nothing better than the scratch of pencil or pen on paper to capture the best notes, and simultaneously create possibilities.

  23. Nancy White says:

    As a compulsive doodler, I relate. The question that comes to mind as I read the (wonderful) comment stream is “why do we feel the need to compulsively capture all this stuff?” It is often more than I can ever go back and use/process. Yet I do it. Is this an addiction? (Beyond the way our capture influences our ability to learn/remember… pro and con.)

  24. I started out 2013 with the decision that I would stop my blue line field notebook habit because it didn’t seem efficient to have handwritten notes. Well I obviously can’t get out of the habit of jotting things down with a pen because now I have little pieces of paper with notes scattered everywhere. It’s a mess! I was so excited to find this collection of fabulous tips this morning! I’m heading out to buy a fresh new blank book today. 🙂

    Nancy’s question caught my attention: “why do we feel the need to compulsively capture all this stuff?” I recently attended a song writing workshop where we engaged in a freewriting exercise, then took turns sharing what we had on paper to pluck out song ideas. It was fabulous. I listened. I didn’t take notes. I spent the rest of the day remembering the lovely details of what everybody said.

    My point with this story is that I think we sometimes take notes instead of paying attention. It becomes a replacement for being completely present. The event is over, we have notes, time to move on to the next thing.

  25. […] Why I Use Pen and Paper Notebooks AND Digital Tools To Take Notes (bethkanter.org) Share this:Like this:Like Loading… […]

  26. Pete Carney says:

    I recommend the Infinity Binder with the free CamNote app. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxFCbWuDsqg

  27. […] reading: Why I Use Pen and Paper Notebooks AND Digital Tools To Take Note (Beth’s […]

  28. […] reading: Why I Use Pen and Paper Notebooks AND Digital Tools To Take Note (Beth’s […]

  29. Dare says:


    When I am out or in a group discussion, I’d rather take a recorder with me ( basically I make use of my Blackberry phone) and record all conversations. With this method, I don’t miss a point unlike trying to write everything down.

    I learn about this during my brief spell in Journalism in Lagos, Nigeria.

    Thanks for sharing your tips.

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