Pen and Paper: Killer Productivity Apps

Forget the hundreds of business-productivity apps you can find online. Pen and paper may be all you need.
September 13, 2012

One of the best ways to kill productivity is to browse through the business apps in the iTunes App Store or Google Play. There are countless apps for note-taking, keeping appointments, managing tasks and reinforcing memories.

But the best tools for improving productivity and memory probably won't be found on a smartphone, tablet or computer. They are found on a more tangible desktop: a pen and some paper.

Why Take Notes

When we listen to a presentation or lecture, we process what we hear into language, and save it into memory. Unfortunately, our brains place the same priority on everything we hear. There is no discrimination between need-to-know and trivia.

When we take notes, however, we engage another part of the brain that connects to the incoming content, but only for the content that we put into notes. It works for classroom lectures, sales presentations, team meetings, conference calls and task management. Writing it down helps us remember it.

How can we take advantage of this trick? Make it a habit. Carry a notebook and have a pen handy to write down anything that needs to be recalled, even when it seems obviously memorable.

Paper or Digital?

The type of notebook you choose matters. A computer or mobile device has some obvious advantages over hand-written notes, and might be the first choice for many of us. After all, it is immune to sloppy handwriting. Also, electronic notes can be easily distributed among team members, and cloud-based storage ensures notes can be accessed from anywhere.

Paper’s Built-In Advantages

Erica Duran, a productivity coach, certified professional planner, and digital junkie, says paper truly is the killer app. For her and her clients, paper is contained in Franklin-Covey planners. She customizes client planners into central repositories for notes, appointments and tasks.

"They know where to go to put ideas, notes, to-dos and appointments," Duran says. "And they know where to retrieve it. It's not over three different programs on their computers."

Yes it's bigger than a smartphone, but not that much bigger. One advantage of the planner’s size is that information on calendar and note pages is clearly visible. "On a phone or on an iPad, the calendar isn't very visible," she says.

Other advantages of using paper: 

Sketches. Not all notes are made up of words. Sometimes the point is better made with drawings, diagrams or arrows. Pen and paper are much more efficient sketch tools.

Information retrieval. Duran coaches her clients on turning note-taking and organizing into habits. Finding needed information then becomes as fast as a digital search. This helps her clients become more productive, which she defines as getting three to five main priorities done each day. "So they're actually moving toward their real goals and not clogging themselves with busy work," she says.

Calmness. Duran’s clients report a new-found sense of calmness. She attributes that partly to the satisfaction of going from really busy to really productive. There also is an earthy, calming feel to touching paper, Duran says.

Fewer distractions. Paper is less distracting. Our mobile devices deliver various reminders and notifications throughout the day, and the wonders of the Internet are only a click away. Those features are designed to make sure we're not missing anything important and to keep us connected. They also interrupt work and focus, generating chaos instead of calmness.

Best of Both Worlds

It would be wonderful to be able gain the tangible benefits of notes on paper while making them digitally searchable and categorized, accessible on any device, and shareable among collaborators. There are a couple of gadgets that aim to do just that.

Evernote Smart Notebook by Moleskine. This combines two much-loved names in the note-taking world. Moleskine makes premium paper notebooks. Evernote is a cloud-based digital notebook and popular productivity tool. The Smart Notebook looks like a regular Moleskine notebook, but the paper is designed to enhance an image taken by the camera function in the Evernote iOS App. Page images are saved as Evernote notes, with all the functionality of standard Evernote notes.

Livescribe Echo Smartpen. The Echo Smartpen records audio while you scribble notes on special Livescribe paper, and it saves your pen strokes so you have a digital version of your notes, synced with the audio. The Livescribe Connect app is OCR capable and saves your "pencasts" to several note-taking and document apps, including Evernote.

Write This Down

Nothing beats the simplicity of paper, however, not even clever crossover devices. Duran's Franklin-Covey system is just one option. Some people are just as productive with Moleskine notebooks or legal pads. Consider these factors when you visit the stationery or office supply store to pick up your next productivity app.

Project calm professionalism. Think of a pen and notebook as part of your wardrobe. Do they support the image you are projecting?

Choose tools that feel good. Are you satisfied when you hold them? If so, you're more likely to use them.

Integrate the notebook into your workflow. The notebook must be handy and be part of your everyday work. Otherwise you won't develop note-taking and review habits.

Don't forget the pen. Again, it's a tool that is part of your professional image, it needs to feel good in your hand, and it should be just as handy as the notebook.

With the right notebook and habits, you're bound to improve your productivity.

Carl Natale is a recovering journalist who now blogs about how small-business owners can develop and improve their businesses. He shares ideas and tips on and as @CarlNatale on Twitter.