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« What's Next? - Progress Report #4 | Main | SF Tips - #2: Being Consistent »

SF Tips - #3: Use Paper and Pen!

I’m not going to tell anyone that they can’t use SuperFocus electronically if they really have to. I’m just going to say that I vastly prefer working it in an ordinary ruled notebook with a ordinary ball pen (yes! they really do still make these things!)


For me there are two reasons. One is psychological and the other is practical.

Psychologically, I find electronic lists cold and unfeeling. My notebook on the other hand feels alive. All those irregularities, crossings out, mistakes and so on make it something I can relate to. The feel of the paper, the weight of the book, the flourish with which I can close a page, the excitement of writing the first line on a new page, all of that makes me feel this book is a part of me.

Practically, however slick the implementation electronic time management always has an overhead. Even on a full-size desktop keyboard, it takes more time to make an entry than with paper and pen. And then there’s the temptation to complicate. First you start tagging your entries so that you can filter them, then you put in links to documents and so on. All very useful, no doubt, but it makes entering a task an exercise in data management.

On two occasions I have done live demos of systems on this blog. I did one for AF4 and one for 3T. Both these meant that instead of working from my usual notebook, I had to work on the computer instead.  I found this to be really tiring. It was like riding a bicycle against a head wind.

Reader Comments (22)

Way to pick a topic more contested than Coke vs Pepsi, Tea or Coffee, or Manchester U vs. that other team. :-)

I happen to find every statement above true except "it takes more time to make an entry than with paper and pen". That depends on the tool and the person. I type 60 words a minute, but write 20. "Ctrl-N zippa dee doo dah" is *much* faster than picking up a book, flipping a page, grabbing a pen and writing.

But the notebook is unquestionably easier.
February 24, 2011 at 18:50 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
I like a notebook because:

- it's very flexible and you can squeeze things in or spread them out
- you can choose a notebook that has meaning for you, whether it is a moleskin or a very pretty paperblanks notebook
- it's always available even when your computer is not for some reason
- you can personalise and make it colourful - I like to draw red lines for boundaries or columns and use blue ink or even purple! (I find colour aids memory)

I am a huge fan of fountain pens, but I also love ballpoints and my new favourite the Pilot Frixion - lots of colours and you can rub it out if you make a mistake - invaluable for diaries as well!!! I have a few nice writing tools and sometimes I like to use them just for the sheer pleasure of doing so!
February 24, 2011 at 19:00 | Registered CommenterAlison Reeves

<< I type 60 words a minute, but write 20. "Ctrl-N zippa dee doo dah" is *much* faster than picking up a book, flipping a page, grabbing a pen and writing. >>

I type pretty fast too, but "Ctrl-N zippa dee doo dah" is only faster if you are using a full-size keyboard, and you're not away from the computer, and the tm program is currently active, and hasn't just decided to crash, and you're not using full screen for something else, and your computer isn't in the middle of re-booting, and you're not having a power outage, etc., etc.
February 24, 2011 at 19:10 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I hate how messy a list gets once you start crossing items out. I always end up rewriting the list on a fresh sheet at some point, which seems counter to the intent of Mark's systems. Years ago when I first started using Getting Things Done, I used 3x5 index cards, and wrote one task per card. Then I could shuffle them like a deck, and when they were done I could just tear them in half and toss them in the recycling bin. I rather liked having a tidy, random-access todo list, but I felt like I was killing too many trees and I don't know how I might make it work with Mark's systems.

Eventually I needed to move online and used RememberTheMilk for a while, but since last fall I've been using a TiddlyWiki-based GTD system called mGSD. I stumbled upon AutoFocus a couple months after I started using it, and almost immediately created a dashboard for running AutoFocus 4 on top of it. I set up the starting point of the AF4 demo in mGSD at, even. The AF4 demo was really the key to my understanding how to do AF4, and I hope you plan to do a SuperFocus demo sometime, because I haven't quite wrapped my head around it and I'd like to see if I can modify my AutoFocus dashboard for mGSD to work with SF, too.
February 24, 2011 at 19:36 | Unregistered CommenterMarijane
Worst of all, the computer always seems to hang or crash whenever there's someone else standing next to you waiting for you to do something, like write down the grocery list. My wife has no patience for my computer problems (rightfully so). Using pen and paper solves all that, especially when I'm using a little pocket notebook I can always carry with me.
February 24, 2011 at 19:44 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
That's why I keep a pen and paper handy: for those rare glitches :-)
And yes, they are quite rare.
February 24, 2011 at 19:57 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
As a probable, undiagnosed ADDer, I find I have to stay away from technology as much as I can, as its very easy for me to get sucked into a weird dimension where time goes by without even noticing it, absorbed that I am aimlessly following any and every hyperlink and exploring the most useless bells and whistles of the application at hand.

However, as a quite "nomadic" person that loves to travel all the time and moves to different continents regularly, I find that keeping things digital allow me to be mobile and travel light. Also, keeping multiple digital backups of my notes and documents in different places as well as "in the cloud" is pretty essential as I tend to lose things easily (due to both being always on the go and a being a forgetful person).

Any Ideas how I could reconcile both concerns?

I was thinking about adding a recurring (weekly or every 2/3 days) "digitize notes" task in SF, which could mean manually entering my handwritten non-tasks notes into a Personal Information Manager type of application (also adds the benefit of making them searchable), and maybe taking digital pictures of my newer SF task pages. Thoughts?
February 24, 2011 at 21:25 | Registered CommenterDaouda
Slightly OT:
Reading Mark's post made me think of my experience in Speech class in college. It was at a time when not everyone had access to a computer. I worked for a software developer and I was HOT STUFF doing the outlines for my speeches on my computer. However, the delivery was not that good. I wasn't shy, but I just babbled through my speeches. Then one day I didn't go to work and went straight to school. I had to do my outline at home by HAND. It was the best speech ever because the paper was written in different colors, straight, slanted, arrows, different sizes of text. I didn't even have to look down at my outline because I could see it in my mind. That experience stuck with me and served me well in many instances since.

I've used various electronic systems but I find that I DO more when using paper. (Still use ical calendar and will probably use electronic means for reference/documentation. )
February 25, 2011 at 0:55 | Unregistered Commentermalisa
I've tried every AutoFocus system (and the others) electronically. Never thought I would ever resort to paper until SuperFocus 3.

I was just too busy to figure out a way to do it electronically but I still wanted to try it. So I just started using a spiral notebook and a pen as a temporary measure.

...and a few weeks later, I'm still using a sprial notebook and a pen, and really enjoying using them. I can understand quite clearly now Mark's comments about the difference between a paper-based and electronic system.

I genuinely surprised myself :)
February 25, 2011 at 0:57 | Unregistered CommenterFrank
Daouda - A pocket-sized Moleskine is pretty light. :-) If you REALLY need to digitize it, you could use a digital camera to photograph all the pages every now and then.
February 25, 2011 at 1:50 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
I hate not having a digital backup. So I tend to do both, I do it in Excel (old-school, I know), and print it.

Even though it's more time to edit it occasionally, I don/t find that part to be that taxing for me. Now I don't have to be concerned about the notebook getting wet, destroyed or lost. I'd rather have peace of mind than total efficiency. But I don't work it electronically, I love paper.

And quite frankly, with my handwriting, typing it is a major plus! I can actually read my own entries.
February 25, 2011 at 1:58 | Unregistered CommenterCarl
@Daouda - If you take photos as Seraphim suggested and also have an account with Evernote, the notes will be available and Evernote 'reads' the photos, uses OCR, and allows you to search the notes for words. This presupposes that your handwriting is legible.
(I have a non-paying account, but otherwise have no connection to Evernote.)
February 25, 2011 at 2:31 | Unregistered CommenterTerri
Seraphim - I realize I didnt express myself clearly enough - I am actually planning on using such kind of pocket sized notebook. In fact this is what Im using right now as sort of a "ubiquitous capture tool" (but not exactly that since Im using it in a very messy, unorganized and inefficient way. I am not using any kind of real time management system or strategy at the moment... My life is consequently a mess and I'm here to get some help to dig myself out of this!) I like to use this vs an expensive electronic device, for the reasons I mentioned above, and also because I often find myself in poorer areas in developping countries : not only wouldnt it be smart to carry something like that in these places, but also the lack of fast, reliable wireless data transfer signal would make it pointless !
February 25, 2011 at 3:19 | Registered CommenterDaouda
I don't carry around paper with me, but I use the Noteshelf app on my iPad -- -- to simulate a ruled notebook for many of the same reasons (lower overhead, low complication, the raw feel of doodling). It's worked pretty well, and stayed out of my way. Flipping pages is a bit more annoying than real paper, though, so it's not without a price. That said, I like having everything the iPad offers in the size of a notepad. :-) I'm also biased toward this kind of stuff since I'm a developer (but NOT of this app), so I like using stuff like this if it stays out of my way...

As far as use goes, I still draw the line down the middle of the pad, write in two columns, flip pages, and cross stuff out. Highlighting isn't so great, but you can approximate it decently. And I like having access to multiple colors and pen sizes in a simple way (red dot for what I'm working on, thicker pen to cross out), and I like that it can look like a pen, but still have an eraser. :-) The only time it's really bugged me has been while riding the bus -- you just can't write well when the vehicle is bouncing all around; and the app doesn't allow for typing at all (bit of a reverse predicament). The app also protects your wrist from making marks on the "paper" and lets you zoom to write finer detail. All in all, not bad, for $4.99

I've been using the Pogo stylus with the iPad. It's decent. There are others that look intriguing like the Boxwave (clips into the headphone jack, novel) and the AluPen seems like it's a good size and shape.
February 25, 2011 at 3:50 | Unregistered CommenterTim Shadel
Daouda, if you're considering scanning or taking pictures of your SF-pages or notes, have a look at Evernote. Every image uploaded to Evernote is automagically processed so it becomes searchable. I use this for scanning business cards I receive: no need to enter all the details manually, but the information is still searchable through Evernote.
February 25, 2011 at 7:42 | Registered CommenterNicole
The subject of bad handwriting comes up each now and then as a reason for not using pen and paper.

Remember your handwriting only has to be good enough for YOU to read!

A good way to improve your handwriting is simply to write slower.
February 25, 2011 at 8:39 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I agree. I have tried to use electronic systems and electronic lists. Every time I try it again I want it to work because it seems to make sense - my calendar is electronic, my contacts are electronic, etc. But I fail every time no matter how slick the app is.

Speed is definitely an issue - nothing is faster than jotting something down in a notebook. I've even tried using voice to text services for lists and they seem to have a heftier overhead than typing. Access is also an issue - wireless connections and internet access will get disconnected occasionally.

But, I think the biggest difference is physical connection. Writing by hand triggers a deeper connection to my thoughts and actions than typing does. When I try to go digital, I miss that somatic connection.
February 25, 2011 at 16:39 | Unregistered CommenterKirsten Olson
i agree with kirsten. I would add that writing on paper has a special effect with me :
better control and it free my intuition. With digital i feel controled by the software with paper i control my task and feel aware and creative about my stuff. the result is a better efficiency and incoming ideas which brought me mny succes in my life.
July 7, 2011 at 4:07 | Registered CommenterJupiter
With this day and age where many of us rely on our electronic gadgets like that of cell phones and computers to make our jobs easier, there are still those who appreciate the use of
pen and paper. They feel much comfortable writing their notes instead of just typing them. The same goes private documents that are much more taken seriously if hand-written. There are times when it is more convenient to encode and save documents in our computers but there are also time when it is better to write on paper. The important thing is we do not forget to reduce wastage and and keep our private files secure.
November 28, 2011 at 8:32 | Unregistered CommenterDSS Austin
Re: overhead

I find electronic entry can be a barrier to reviewing a list with others. I say "we need to paint the windows." Husband says ok. starts typing, oops, wrong app. where's the app? found. now, new item. ok, We neeedxnww pai... darn, gotta fix that.

By the time he's finished, I'm bored enough to play plants vs. zombies on my iPhone.

paper please. "paint windows", done.
November 28, 2011 at 18:25 | Unregistered CommenterMia cantom
I oscillate between electronic and paper list management technique, but usually maintain an electronic version. But...I seem to have trouble with my electronic lists in a similar way that many of you have mentioned: with electronic lists I don't really feel connected to them.

It's strange sometimes when I go back to my electronic list, scan it over and feel no compelling reason to do any of it. I know that I wrote those tasks, but they feel like someone else did. It feels like someone else is telling me what to do. When I use paper, it feel more like I wrote those tasks, so I inherently trust them more. This has been on my mind for quite a while and is the first time I'll "written" about them...
November 29, 2011 at 18:48 | Unregistered CommenterCameron Plommer

<< scan it over and feel no compelling reason to do any of it >>

Then why not just delete the lot and go off and enjoy yourself?
November 29, 2011 at 21:10 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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