Why Paper?

This is not another defense of the paper planner for the typical reasons; Yes, paper doesn’t crash, it doesn’t require charging, it feels pleasant and looks nice.  Writing things down helps lots of people recall information in a way that typing does not replicate.  These are all valid reasons.  But they are not my primary reason for choosing paper for my planner and for my information recording.

If you use any sort of paper planner, someone will come up to you one day and tell you “you know, you can do that with a smart phone.”  And you will need to smile and nod and decide how to respond.

A lot of people use paper for tactile and aesthetic qualities.  While I fully appreciate these benefits, for me the very tangibility of paper is essential.  Paper takes up space.  Paper is not keyword-searchable.  Paper is heavy.

These attributes of paper seem to drive a lot of paperless initiatives; people decide that paper is messy, it creates clutter, it takes up space, it gets lost.

These aspects of paper force the user to establish discipline and systematic routines to manage it.  If I want to retrieve a document, I need to use a standardized filing methodology to be sure I can find it at the moment I need it.  If I want to keep my binders from bursting at the seams, I need to remove obsolete information regularly.  To balance my preferred two-page-per-day planner setup with the limited amount of paper which can fit in a portable planner, I need to do a comprehensive weekly review wherein I archive older pages and insert newer pages.  Paper requires attention, and in giving the system the attention I develop greater knowledge of its content.

Of course, digital systems also require attention to keep them functional and organized; the trouble is that this need is not as apparent.  I would always think that “I can do a keyword search”, but as the scale of information in the system increases, the utility of word-searching decreases.  In my years of trying to be “paperless” I found I would lose control of my files; finding certain specific documents or notes would become a bit of the needle-in-the-haystack in my masses of poorly indexed information.  In my observation of colleagues who are keeping most of their information digital, my situation was certainly not unique.

If I file a paper document, and believe I will need to be able to retrieve that document in the future, I must settle the topical headings and file hierarchy.  I need to know that all scheduling documents are filed together in chronological order, or that all budget information is filed under financial sorted by fiscal-year.  When my file drawer becomes overstuffed, I need to thumb through and identify obsolete information to destroy or archive elsewhere.

The irony is that now that I’ve got the system worked out, it would be quite easy to replicate it in a digital format.  But the thing is, paper forces me to be disciplined and so I will probably continue to use that as my primary system.  At the moment, I am using digital storage for archival and replication purposes, but paper just seems faster and easier for my daily recording and information retrieval.

Any system can become messy and disorganized very easily; digital has the advantage of keeping the mess more-or-less under wraps, but eventually disorganization will show.  Learning to sort and organize my information on paper has helped me to apply the same system to my digital files, so now I can normally locate and produce any document or piece of information in my system very quickly and with efficiency.  At the end of the day, the format is secondary to the overall efficiency of the system you choose.

3 thoughts

  1. I second your excellent post, Josh. Fortunately, I can still access 3.5 (I have forgotten the size) and might be able to use the old 5.25 if our very ancient computer will still boot up (it was a Packard Bell, 386 with a 286 bus and a huge hard drive of 40 MB – don’t laugh!!!!!). it cost over $2,000 CDN in 1985/6. Actually, every time I have changed computers, I have kept the old drive information on each consecutive one. A good laugh for the morning (here in Eastern Canada) but I have actually used information on it. Have a great day, everyone!

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