One of my favorite parts of starting any new school year was receiving a new paper planner. After getting my schedule, I’d flip past the list of international holidays and a map of the United States and then carefully write out where I’d be and when for the upcoming month. It helped me feel prepared, ready, and like I was starting the year off on the right foot. Even when I got to college, the desire to enter each school year with a fresh, clean planner persisted. While everyone around me started bringing laptops to class for notes and began keeping their schedules on smart phones, I maintained a ritual of schlepping to a bookstore and buying a new planner and a bevy of notebooks every year.
I would color code. I’d use stickers. I’d add mementos from weekly events. In many ways, it would become something less like a planner and more like a snapshot of my life. A way to keep track of where I was, what I did, and what I’d accomplished.
And that’s why keeping paper planners around is important: they help us capture a larger image of our lives, our time, and how we’re spending it.
They Take More Time to Fill Out – and That’s Good
According to research conducted by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, writing things such as notes for a class by hand can be more valuable than simply typing them out on a computer. A lot of research has shown that using computers or apps to keep track of tasks or notes can be less productive.
One of the reasons for that is pretty intuitive: phones and computers are distracting. But if you were to take a closer look, you’d also find that using digital devices is less useful because they use a different set of mental processes than handwriting.
Mueller and Oppenheimer split their classes into two groups: those who would take notes by hand and those who would simply type them on their laptops. They found that while the students who typed their notes out had significantly more written down, it was the students who took notes by hand that remembered more and had a greater conceptual understanding of the topics discussed.
Like most things ONE Thing related, the reason that writing things down for the students produced better comprehension centers upon time.
When we type things on a laptop or phone, we can do so quickly and effortlessly. We can digitally record a lecture or can quickly type up what is discussed in a meeting verbatim, and in doing so, we never have to worry about giving anything our dedicated attention.
By contrast, writing things out by hand uses different parts of our brain. Handwriting will never match the speed or ease of digital mediums, but it turns out that’s better for our mind. In their study, the researchers found that students who wrote by hand were forced to listen more intently to the larger conversation on the subject because they didn’t have the time to write EVERYTHING down. In order to take efficient notes, they’d have to first understand what was actually being said. The greater understanding helped them prioritize and memorize information in a more meaningful way.
They Help us Understand How We’re Using Our Time
For some of us, it’s easy to know whether or not we’re allocating our time toward our ONE thing. Take famed novelist Stephen King, for example. In an interview between he and George R. R. Martin, King discussed his writing habits:
“The way that I work, I try to get out there and I try to get six pages a day. So, with a book like End of Watch, and … when I’m working I work every day — three, four hours, and I try to get those six pages, and I try to get them fairly clean. So if the manuscript is, let’s say, 360 pages long, that’s basically two months work. … But that’s assuming it goes well.”
For King, knowing whether or not he does his ONE thing for the day – writing – and if he hits his goal for that day is simple: he looks at the page count. He knows how many days he needs to write to reach his goals. He has a bigger view of his time, what he needs to accomplish, and what to do on a daily basis to get it done.
We’ve said it before, and it’s still true: If you want a big life, you need to adopt a bigger view of time. We can see where we need to go and how to get there. This is where digital planners fall short.
Digital calendars function as a catch-all for our lives: they show us everything we have to do, but they don’t grant us the understanding of what we should do. Digital alerts treat everything with equal importance. They don’t help us rearrange and understand our time in a way that is comprehensive and meaningful.
By contrast, many people, including The ONE Thing co-author Gary Keller, laud paper planners for their ability to help them look at their time and how they’re investing their time as a whole.
As Fast Company contributor Shane Snow noted in his article on switching from a digital to paper planner:
“It turned out to be a weekly planner (again, by mistake), which means you see the whole week at once, rather than one day at a time. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to think about my priorities a whole week in advance (rather than just day by day), which made me schedule out those work blocks a little more intentionally.”
Paper planners are a flexible medium that help us understand how we use our time. If your health goal for the year is to go to the gym three times a week, you can mark down not only your workout days, but whether or not you actually went.
By contrast, an exploratory study found that relying on digital apps that simply ping us with reminders can actually be detrimental to changing behavior – we end up relying too heavily on the app and its reminders instead of building the habit internally. Then when those apps or reminders are taken away, we’re back to square one.
And it can be easy to simply dismiss a reminder on our phones for days on end, without realizing that we aren’t doing what needs to get done. What feels like one day to take a break from our ONE thing can easily slip into multiple weeks. Before you know it, you haven’t been to the gym in three months.
But paper planners show us exactly how many days we’ve skipped going to the gym, how many writing days we actually have in a month, or whether or not you’ve scheduled all four of your date nights with your partner – for the week, the month, and the year overall.
Paper is Here to Stay
In the end, the major difference between digital and paper is that it’s also a means of record keeping that helps hold us accountable.
Digital planners and calendars are still useful tools. They help us schedule meetings, share calendars, set reminders for ourselves, and time block. But those same functions that aid us can also end up being distractions that move us away from accountability and priority.
When we take the time to write out what we’re planning to do, why and how, we’re setting ourselves up to be more thoughtful and accountable. We aren’t just mindlessly setting a recurring time block that we’ll forget ever existed – we’re actively engaging with our goals, our schedule and how we want to use our time.