My Old Friend, Paper

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I often wonder about the fate of paper.  For all the talk about “going paperless,” I think we are still at least a generation away, but that’s probably all.  Do children today even have an opportunity to write things on paper anymore?  I’ve read that many schools have stopped teaching handwriting, and I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, there are plenty of things that children really need to learn in school in order to become prepared for life in the modern world, so perhaps it’s prudent to substitute handwriting for technology lessons.  On the other hand, there is ample evidence to suggest that there is a critical connection between handwriting and cognitive development.

Aside from the effect on the developing brain, what is paper’s place in managing the details of a modern life?  I always have many people in my trainings who are “list-makers,” and many of those people still make lists on paper, even younger ones.  I was one of millions of people worldwide in the 80’s and 90’s who carried the huge paper-based planner inside the zippered leather binder, and I managed my life very efficiently with it for many years.

In the early 2000s, I reluctantly made the switch from paper to electronics.  I knew this was where the business world was headed, and I wanted to be prepared to teach my clients.  While my paper planner was efficient, I quickly realized that the increased efficiencies and productivity gains offered by electronic tools were so great, paper simply couldn’t compete.  I realized that one would have to work much harder and take so much extra time to use a paper-based planning tool, that the financial and time investment made in the technology would provide returns almost immediately.  That was more than 10 years ago, and the technology has advanced still more to bring so many conveniences, I find it hard to remember how I lived without them!

I still believe that it’s worthwhile to hand write notes, but I also believe that the most efficient thing to do is to then transfer the relevant parts of those notes into an electronic planning tool. (I now do most of my handwriting on my iPad using the PenUltimate app, which gives me the best of both worlds.)

First, for those “list-makers,” a handwritten list on paper is simply no match for all the ways that modern technology has created to distract us.  In your work environment, you are probably facing at least one computer screen (maybe two), a screen on your handheld device, and maybe even a screen on your desk phone and a television or two, depending on your industry.  Matt Richtel, technology writer for the New York Times, calls this “screen invasion.”  Each of these screens has motion and lights and colors and sounds and all methods of stealing your attention.  Unfortunately, your handwritten list is simply no match for current technology.

Just a partial list of other advantages of electronics over paper for managing the details of your life:

  • you never have to rewrite or otherwise spend time recreating anything generated electronically
  • paper can’t remind you of things
  • paper can’t be backed up in any realistic way
  • duplicating paper takes time and is cumbersome
  • paper takes up much more space than electronic storage
  • writing things on paper usually takes more time than capturing them electronically
  • electronics provide more media offerings – such as pictures, videos, audio, or text
  • a living document on paper is difficult or impossible to share with others in different locations

Because of all this, I found it curious that David Allen has just released for 2012, the “GTD Coordinator(R),” a paper planning tool.  This is a joint effort between David Allen and MeadWestvaco (a paper company).  I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that Mr. Allen, author of Getting Things Done, would launch a paper planning tool, since his book is full of advice on using note cards, notebooks, and endless file folders, but I always thought that was just because the book was written so long ago (although it was published in 2002, at the end of the year that I was making my switch to electronics.)   While his methodology is great, I just can’t imagine why someone who teaches productivity systems and processes would advise a tool that is so woefully outmatched by current technology.

I believe that handwriting and paper still has its place, and paper might work best for you.  But we have so many more technology conveniences today, and I’ve found that your productivity can improve significantly by harnessing those conveniences.  (Check out this post and this post for some suggestions.) So to best capitalize on the productivity improvements of the 21st century, I suggest you pass on the GTD Coordinator.

Thanks for reading!

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  1. Thanks for posting this Maura. You’re so right about the efficiency. Why touch something two or three times when you can be finished?

    I used to be like your task list customers that you mentioned. There are so many flaws with paper, and the re-writing is a waste. is a great one. It auto-pushes email reminders for due dates (if you want it to), so once it is in the system you can let it do all of the work. It’s also the same tool on your computer, tablet & smartphone…so always synced regardless of your input technology.

    When I think about tools like that versus a GTD/Mead paper planner I think of the 1980’s. Curious, indeed!

    I have been looking for something like PenUltimate for Android for a few weeks, and…voila…finally found it. PenSupremacy works great for Android tablets if any of your customers ask. It’s in the Android Market for only $1.49.

  2. While it was definitely still late in the game, the GTD Coordinator has been around since late 2008 (with a 2009 calendar in the first edition).

    I don’t dispute any of your points on electronics, there are still millions of paper planner users in the US alone.  It may be an industry in decline, but Staples, Office Max, and Office Depot all carry FranklinCovey and DayTimer paper planners.  (For that matter, those two brands and Levenger all have their own stores).

    I suspect David Allen Company’s aim with the Coordinator isn’t so much to convince the world that paper is better (or even the best way to implement GTD); rather, it’s an attempt to snatch a piece of the billion-dollar market of people who still use paper.  I think they would argue that getting people to use GTD is at least as important a battle as getting them comfortable with digital tools.

    And it’s not a terrible argument–I think what matters even more than whether one is paper or digital is whether one is using the tools consistently.  An incomplete digital list  of half-thought-through tasks won’t beat a complete, current, clear list on paper.

    • Thank you for the very thoughtful comments! I agree, any tool needs to be used consistently to be truly useful. I also agree that the paper planner market is still large, but having worked in it for almost a decade, I can also tell you that the year-to-year decline is precipitous. The current size of the industry does point out, however, as you suggest, that there remains a market, and a good paper planner can still effectively manage a busy life. I just think it takes more time and effort to do so. Thanks for reading!

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