Al Dean searches for a nimble combo of analog and digital

25 April 2014

Al Dean takes stock of today’s obsession with digital communications but following a recent disaster with his handwritten notes wonders if a nimble combination of digital and analog is the future

In the last few months I’ve been pondering how much time I spend in front of a computer. Let’s face it, we all do it to excess. It’s part of the daily life of nearly everyone working in the western world
—email, texts, conference calls, Skype chats. The whole shebang.

What brought this about was a recent experiment during meetings and the like. I’ve never been a big fan of taking notes at all, having always been of the opinion that if you’re sitting there, scribbling notes, the chances are that you’re not listening. Also, I’ve had a thought over the years that if you can’t remember something from a meeting, it’s probably not worth remembering in the first place.

Which is all well and good until age starts to take its toll and you realise memory isn’t as sharp as it once was. I have found in the last few years that my powers of recall have diminished and note taking has crept back into my process for capturing information.

Being the nerd, note taking, of course, became a digital activity. My weapon of choice was Evernote. If you’ve not come across it before, it’s a note taking service that runs across multiple devices. Laptop, desktop, iPad, phone, whatever. Write your notes in that and they’re synchronised to a central server and available wherever and with whatever device you’re using.

Distractions everywhere

The thing is I discovered that taking those notes was distracting me from the role at hand. When you’re a writer in any field, your job is just as much (if not more) about listening rather than expressing your views. At least, it seems that way to me. If we learn more, we can communicate more. That’s the reason we’re here.

As a result, I switched back to taking notes with a pen and paper. I got all fancy and bought some new cartridges for my favourite fountain pen (if you’re curious, that would be the Lamy Safari — beautiful things they are) and some new notebooks.

Cue two months of note taking the old school way. Replete with sketches and diagrams to communicate what I was learning and listening to. Most of my content for the magazine went into those pages.

Then disaster struck. A wet bicycle ride meant that my nearly full notebook was a sodden, soggy mess and everything illegible. Month’s worth of notes, gone in an instant.

It had been fun — I’d come up with some new ideas for projects, written all my notes for articles, comment pieces and projects we have under way at the office. Poof! Gone.

It struck me that while writing notes by hand was more engaging, more enjoyable and more productive than tapping them into a computer, ultimately, that more pleasurable experience came at the expense of losing everything.

If I’d been typing them into Evernote, they’d have been backed up, saved and available.

A new workflow

To avoid this happening again, I’ve decided to carry on taking notes on paper with a pen or pencil, but to scan those pages at the end of each week. Store them in Evernote and make sure they’re available.

Yes, it might seem a tortuous workflow, but it combines the best of the analog and the digital. The pure physical enjoyment of a pen scratching across a page, combined with the readily available and backed-upped-ness of the digital. The only thing I need to improve on is my handwriting, which is still absolutely shocking.

Comments on this article:

Hi Al, Handwriting is the only non distracting way to take notes. Fiddling around with fancy geek stuff distracts not only you, but the peaple you talk to even more. But I got tired of all the paperwork on my desk, too. Have a look at the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014. I use it for 3 months now and it's perfect for me. Allows to take handwritten notes and mail them to myself as a PDF. You can even OCR them, but I don't. It's not from Apple, sorry. And you need to buy a thicker pen or Tenosynovitis will get you grin Oh, and it'sd not waterproof, too. So you need a bag for it, too. Cheers, Ralf

Posted by Ralf Steck on Monday 28 2014 at 09:21 AM

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