The Paper Method

Near the beginning of this year I found that my note taking system wasn’t working anymore and was in need of an overhaul, or at least rethinking things. At the time my system was to take all notes on my iPad or iPhone (either with a stylus, or in a note app) and I was pretty adamant about how much better that is/was. I still think that digital notes hold far more advantages to analog, but some changes in the way I worked necessitated a change for me.

It used to be that all of my meetings took place either in person or on an actual phone call, and there wasn’t really any other type of meeting for me. For this type of meeting, digital notes worked really well for me, as I would take notes on my iPad or iPhone while meeting with the person, and after the call on Simplenote if that happened to be the case.

However, with a change in jobs comes a change in how my meetings work. First I have more meetings (though I loosely define meetings to also encompass audio calls as well). Most of my meetings are now on Skype, Google Hangouts, or GoToMeeting, and this required that I change the way I take notes — not that I didn’t try to resist this change for the first month.

A Change is Needed

The problem that I ran into is twofold: digital notes are loud, since I type with a mechanical keyboard, and that means everyone can hear when I take notes (unless I mute, which can cause problems); also digital notes tend to shake the camera on my MacBook Pro when I am typing, which can be very nauseating for those on video calls with me.

Both of those may be minor issues, and certainly there are many issues with analog notes, but I also found that I was much more easily distracted when I took digital notes, as all of our team communication is on my Mac, I could easily find my attention pulled away to another topic. In other words digital notes meant my meetings were less professional and I had less focus for them.

I really needed a change at this point.

Something to allow me to focus better, be quieter, and not wiggle the crap out of my camera. Naturally, a fancy notebook and some pens is the way to do this.

What I’ve found after switching is that I can take notes faster by hand, quieter by hand, and I actually do remember my notes better (requiring me not to need to reference my notes as often), all while not losing my focus.


There are many sites dedicated to the tools of writing analog, so I won’t touch too much on this. But I’ve managed to find a few things that work really well for me:

I use a pretty basic setup, though I am tempted to buy hundreds of different notebooks to try out, the above suits me very well.


This, of course, wouldn’t be a very good analog post if I didn’t talk about how I am taking notes — most people don’t care if am, just what tools and madness you are using. Given that the Leuchtturm has a date marker at the top of each page I’ve went ahead and decided to use a new page for each day (though I will overflow to additional pages if needed), so naturally the date goes at the top.

From there I use a simple heading and list format to track everything. Each meeting gets a heading assigned like so:

# Meeting with Client

It is then followed by points which are preceded with a hyphen, or dash, and slightly inset to fit under the heading. If an item is actionable in any way, I place a star just to the left of the dash, and a check to the left of the star once the action has been acted on.

This allows me to see my day chronologically, as well as to scan to relevant parts. I tried using other methods like Sketchnoting, or Dash plus, but ultimately found this works better for me.

Everything with a star gets dumped into OmniFocus at first opportunity, and marked off on the paper. I don’t like to work from paper for my task list, so no tasks stay on the paper longer than they have to.

My Field Notes are kept on me at all times, and typically are used for doodling ideas that I might have, or giving feedback about a particular visual thing. Also for quick lists, notes, ideas, etc — the normal Field Note fair. The tiny Moleskin is there because its pages are removable and so it works out well when my kids see me writing on paper and want a piece of their own, or if I happen to need to hand a note to someone, but mostly for my kids.

And yes, even though I have fancier pens, I prefer to write with that Retro 1951 — it just flows nicely and is the right size and taper for my hand. I do, however, use the Fisher Bullet Space Pen when out and about — it practically lives in my pocket.


Overall, this system is better than what used before. It works far better than a digital system for me now, as I can take more stealthy notes and I don’t wiggle my camera when on video calls. I also simply remember my notes far better and so I can more rapidly relay information and recall information, all good things. My focus is also sharp,decidedly on the call and not on what else might happen.

There are two nitpicks I have about analog notes in general: they add a lot of extra things to carry. Two small notebooks and one large notebook — that’s a lot when you consider before it was just one of my iPad/iPhone/Laptop which I still carry. Additionally, they require a lot more space on my desk and I often have to move my keyboard around on my small home desk to find the room to write in a notebook. This is an obvious limitation, but not a deal breaker.

Lastly, they aren’t searchable. I’ve done my best so I can scan them, but search I cannot. Nor can I have them all on my at one time as I can with Simplenote.

Even with those tradeoffs, I still think the analog notes are great. I don’t find a need to try out any more pens, I have a few I really like. Nor do I feel the need to buy a ton of notebooks, when what I have is full I’ll try something else.

I am pretty sure that, while more annoying, analog notes for now are a far better system overall than digital notes. That being said, I won’t hesitate to try digital once again when Vesper for the Mac ships, or anything else that might seem more enticing.

Until then…

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Article Details

by Ben Brooks
6 minutes to read.


I’ve joined the ultimate nerd group: notebook users.