Is a Paper Notebook a Time Waster?

I was listening to the Mikes on Mics podcast a few days ago and heard of some Elite Harvard Ivory Tower Intellectual pooh-poohing my paper notebook. Alexandra Samuel actually isn’t an elite Harvard intellectual in the sense that I’m lampooning, but she is a writer for the Harvard Business Review and she put up a piece entitled Dear Colleague, Put the Notebook Down which filled me with righteous wrath.

Go read it first. I’ll wait.

A search of the Eyebrow will tell you that I like notebooks. I’m a firm believer that if you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. But “writing things down” can mean many different things nowadays. Typically, I take notes in a spiral bound, graph-ruled notebook that lets me keep everything together. This notebook goes everywhere with me and I just have to flip, flip, flip back to the appropriate page and there’s what I was doing, and who I was talking to.

Which made the blatant and horrible condescension of Alexandra Samuel’s piece so enraging! I actually read the article while at a stop light immediately after finishing up the Mikes on Mics podcast so I was driving home full of anger. How dare this woman insult my work skills?! She called me a useless hire because of the time it would take to transcribe a set of meeting minutes into an official document. Fuck her and fuck the horse she rode in on.

Then I thought about it. And I thought about it some more. And I realized that she had a point.

My veteran notebook serves me well and I have a stack of them in my drawer that I’ve filled over the years. Just this morning I went back to page 12 of the current notebook to check some notes written down during a phone call about the number of buses accessing a middle school. After that, I reviewed some meeting minutes that I’d made last week when discussing with a client their needs for materials submittals. That has been the majority of the flipping back that I’ve done in this notebook. I regularly go back and check to be sure my open tasks are complete (or irrelevant) but that is all. The notebook is a static storage system that serves in case I need to reference something. It does not interface with the internet, nor does it directly populate my Remember The Milk account with errands and tasks. It can’t download to a document so that the meeting minutes I need to type up are 70% complete.1 Ms. Samuel’s points here are valid and I think that I will take her (pointed, hyberbolic) lessons to heart2

So here’s what I’m going to try over the next little while:

  • Use the Livescribe Pen that Jennifer bought me a while ago. I’d been trying to insert it into my workflow unsuccessfully for a while. The way to do it (I think) is to go cold turkey on the veteran notebook and start using the Livescribe exclusively. This wouldn’t work very well at all3 without…
  • Evernote. I’ve had an Evernote account for a while which has sat dormant and unused. I think the only way to use it is to use it, rather than plinking down the occasional note or web snippet. I’m going to try going paperless on my receipts by taking snapshots. I’ll also see what I can do about ditching my other paper notes (index cards, sticky notes) by immediately snapshotting or scanning them into Evernote. This is an experiment, of course, and these don’t handle one of the issues I mentioned way above, that being the transcription of meeting notes to publishable documents. For that I’ll need…
  • MyScript. MyScript is a for-pay add on to the Livescribe system which does text conversion. As I learned during some web searches, while the Evernote system produces searchable notes (even from images) it doesn’t do OCR, per se. What it does is create a set of possible matches that each word could be and that becomes searchable. The example I kept seeing was “House” which might be recognized both as “House” and as “Horse” and searchable under both terms. That would make for a rather messy document if printed out. MyScript does the OCR within Livescribe and allows you to export to a small variety of document types. So far it’s been acceptable, but I haven’t really torture tested it. The one time license is $30 and I’ve got a 30 day trial to see how it works.
  • Lots of phone-photos of notes and things, which will get uploaded to Evernote.

As this is a bit new, I’m sure there will be some bugs involved in the process. One thing I know will be a problem is off-line connectivity. Evernote is wonderful, so long as you’re connected to the internet. I have the PC program on my laptop, but it takes 5 minutes to boot up and that’s nearly so useful as flipping open my notebook. I have my iPhone, but again, if no internet, no Evernote4.

It’s all a grand experiment! The thing I will keep in mind is that this whole process should increase my efficiency and ease of use. If not, it’s back to the paper notebooks.

Update: I’ve discovered that Evernote has an offline mode with a premium subscription. I’ve paid for a month.

  1. I don’t care what Ms. Samuel thinks, meeting minutes are never done during the meeting. Unless you’re some crazy writing savant, the first draft will never catch the intended tone of the meeting, especially if you want [ahem] the meeting minutes to reflect factual but leaning statements. []
  2. In her defense, I probably wouldn’t have thought about it so much if her points hadn’t made me so angry. Good job, Alexandra. []
  3. The basic functionality of the Livescribe is interesting, but ultimately not that useful without some add-ons such as I describe in the later text. []
  4. I think. I’ll have to try using it in airplane mode and see what happens. []
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One Response to Is a Paper Notebook a Time Waster?

  1. James Cronen says:

    I just started using Evernote a couple weeks ago. As far as I can tell, the iOS app works fine when you’re disconnected. The only feature that’s lost is the ability to sync your notes with the Evernote repository.

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