Going Paperless: Field Notes: A Useful Detour to Going Paperless

As part of my recent efforts to automate as many of the routine things that I do, and reduce the amount of time I spend on them, in order to carve out more time for the creative things that I enjoy, I have discovered a strange little phenomenon. Sometimes, a counter-intuitive action can be the most productive move you can make. Let me provide two brief real-world examples of this.

By day, I am an application software developer and a lot of the development work I do deals with large SQL databases. As every database developer learns early on, either while in school, or from practical experience, you want to do your best to “normalize” your databases. For those not familiar with the guts of database design, normalization is the process of organizing the tables and relationships within the database so that there is no redundancy or duplication of data. And yet, as any database developer with any practical experience knows, there are times in which denormalizing your database can lead to some serious performance improvements, making a better overall experience for the customer, even if the database is following a textbook design.

For those not familiar with databases, let me give you another example, this from the world of baseball. When a pitcher is facing a hitter from another team who is particularly hot–say he has already hit 2 home runs in the game, one tactic that is often used to avoid additional runs is to intentionally walk that batter. You don’t give them a chance to hit, you just put them on base and face the next guy, who may not be hitting nearly as well. But what if bases are already loaded? Walking the big hitter will guarantee another run to the opposing team. But say you are already winning, 10-4. Giving the other team 1 run, when they might get 4 can be a no-brainer, and so, despite the fact that it is counter-intuitive, you might intentionally walk that batter anyway. This happened to Barry Bonds on occasion back in the day.

All of this is preface for my admission that I have slipped back into using paper on a very limited basis for a very specific purpose. And while it most certainly seems counter-intuitive for the Going Paperless guy to intentionally use paper, it has what I think, is a valid purpose, improved efficiency, much like denormalizing a database or walking a batter with the basis loaded. Let me explain.

As a writer, I am constantly jotting down notes. If I have my iPad with me, this is easy. I just open up Penultimate and scribble my notes in my Commonplace book. But I don’t always have my iPad with me. I walk a lot during the day and at those times, I have only my iPhone. As I have been jotting more and more notes (especially now that I am listening to more and more audiobook), I’ve found that capturing those notes on the iPhone is far from efficient. Ideally, I could pull out my phone, press a button and immediately enter my notes, but in practice that is not how it works. I have tried multiple applications, but the results are roughly the same. Each time I want to make a note, it takes too much time to get started.

I don’t really blame the applications for this, it is the environment for which they are created. This environment has some overhead that seems to make instantaneous starts impossible. I blame myself and my inept fingers for some of it. I am not as deft as some, perhaps. Nevertheless, I decided to be scientific about it and run a series of time tests as a way of eliminating my ineptitude, or at least, averaging it over the trials. Since I use the Evernote app for capturing notes on the iPhone, I did my trials there. I divided my trials into 2 parts: “Cold” and “Warm.” Cold trials timed how long it took me to be able to start typing in the body of a new note from scratch, when the Evernote app was not running in the background. Warm trials timed how long it took me to be able to start typing in the body of a new note from scratch when the Evernote app was already running in the background. I did 10 trials for each condition.

For cold trials, it took, on average, 25.1 seconds from the time I tapped the Evernote app icon to the time I could actually start typing my note. For warm trials, it took, on average, 13.1 seconds before I could start typing my note.

Twenty-five seconds is a lot of time waiting waiting waiting. And while 13 seconds doesn’t seem like much, when I find myself doing then a dozen or more times each day, it can be frustrating.

Actually, you need to add an additional 6 seconds to these averages. I the passcode lock feature on my iPhone and it takes me, on average, 6 seconds to take my phone from my pocket and enter my passcode. So really, for cold trials, it takes 31.1 seconds before I can start typing my note and nearly 20 seconds for warm trials when the Evernote app is running in the background.

This is too long for me. I’ve tried a few other apps and they aren’t much better. So, I’ve done the counter-intuitive thing: I’ve gone back to paper in these cases.

Field Notes as my intermediate paper solution for paperless notes

Evernote makes a great Moleskine notebook that has some nice features for jotting down handwritten notes and then using the document camera feature to convert those handwritten notes to digital format. I used to use Molskine notebooks myself, but I found that they are a little too bulky for my tastes, even the small ones. I’d heard of some people using a product called Field Notes notebooks, and that is what I have ended up using. Field Notes notebooks are small, are 48 pages each, are flexible and easily fit in my pocket without feeling bulky. I can pull them out while I am walking, jot down my notes and have them back in my pocket in the same time it would take me to get out my phone and get the Evernote app started.

Field Notes notebook

Here is the raw data for my time-trials as I jotted the data1 in my field notes notebook:

Field Notes Data

I called this my “intermediate” solution for paperless notes and that is exactly what it is. At the end of each week, I go through the notes that I have captured in my Field Notes notebook and, using the Document Camera feature in the Evernote app, I capture all of the new pages for that week in Evernote. Batching them together, I can usually do this pretty quickly. And I generally jot down page numbers at the bottom of each page. After I capture the note in Evernote, I cross off the page number as a way of indicating that I’ve captured that note already. My process, therefore, looks roughly as follows:

Field Notes Process

I expect that Evernote and other note-taking apps for the iPhone will eventually improve in their startup times, especially as improvements are made to iOS. Once again, I don’t think this problem is  one with the apps themselves, but instead one of the environment in which they run. That said, I do feel like I ultimately make better use of my time by–counter-intuitively–capturing these kinds of notes in my pocket notebook and then batch loading them in Evernote once a week.

Someone is bound to point out that this goes against what I’ve written about before, especially in my post on how Penultimate and Evernote have replaced my pocket notebook. I’d say that is partially true. It has replaced how I capture notes on my iPhone. I still use Penultimate for capturing notes on my iPad. But I look at the Going Paperless process, as well as my process of automating what I do, as an evolutionary one. I am constantly looking for ways to improve it and ways to save time so that I have more time for creative things like writing stories. This is one place where I’ve found paper to be a useful time-saver in the big picture, as an intermediary step to achieving the dual goals of going paperless and automating that which can be automated.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let know me. Send it to me at feedback [at] jamietoddrubin.com. As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

  1. You may notice, in looking at this data, that 2 of the cold-trial times were especially long. I believe this is because Evernote was syncing with the server in these trials and that sync made the overall run longer.


  1. Have you tried the Drafts app for the iPhone? I’ve found this to be the quickest way to get a thought down – it opens immediately onto a new “note” and you can capture the thought in seconds. It can send your notes to Evernote (which I do in bulk after I’ve created a few).

    1. David, I have tried several, including Drafts. It still isn’t quite fast enough for me. Part of it is the ecosystem. I have to pull out my phone, put in the passcode to unlock my phone, hit the Evernote (or Drafts) icon, wait for the app to start, create a new note and then start typing. Too much to do especially when I am on the move. Pulling the Field Notes notebook and pen out of my pocket, jotting my note and capturing all of the notes at the end of the week is a much more seamless and faster process for me.

      A good example of where Evernote has done this really well is how they’ve integrated the quick notes into the Mac client. On my Mac, I can hit a keyboard combination from anywhere, no matter what application I am in, and a little blank note window appears from the toolbar and I can just start typing. Ideally, this is how it would work on the iPhone as well, but there is an entirely different application and security ecosystem to contend with there. I imagine this problem will eventually be solved, but until then, the Field Notes (or other notebook of choice) seems to be the most efficient solution.

  2. Ah, David beat me to it. Drafts is my solution as well. It wasn’t until I got drafts that I replaced my version of your field notes book, my steno pad. It sits on my dock, so as soon as my phone is unlocked, I hit the button. It is 2-3 seconds cold or warm start and I am ready to start typing. You can quickly send your notes to evernote (you can even set up shortcuts to send them to particular notebooks, or use markup so that they are nicely formatted when they arrive in Evernote). You can also quickly send them to other apps, such as Toodledo, Remember the Milk, Dropbox, Reminders, Calendar, e-mail, post to Facebook, Google search, etc. I’ll often send a note to both Toodledo and Evernote, so that it gets to my todo list and the reference material is in Evernote. When I jot it down, I don’t have to have decided what I want to do with it yet. Just that I have to get something down so that I don’t forget it. Then when I am ready, I can send it wherever it needs to go. Fantastic little app, very responsive developer, always coming out with new features.

  3. Even Penultimate on the IPad is more awkward than a real notebook. I had not thought about photographing notebook pages into Evernote. I use paper notebooks a lot (I just like the way they feel) and am glad to know how easy it will be to get them into Evernote.

    1. Generally, I use my phone to take notes at my church meetings. But last week I was without my phone. So I had to steal some paper from one of the others and take my notes “old school”. Once I got my phone back, I just took pictures of the pages directly in Evernote and was good to go.

      You can also scan handwritten pages, which is what I was doing to get my steno book into Evernote before I completely switched over. It’s generally faster and more clear than a photo.

  4. Hi Jamie, thanks for this week’s post. I have a rather simpler, and still paperless, solution that has very minimal cold / warm trial times.

    For someone in an emerging market like India where Android OS is more popular than iOS, a phone like Samsung Galaxy Note 2 also encourages one to push the limit in being paperless. As you might be aware, the Galaxy Note 2 comes with a S-Pen which when removed from its “dock” in the phone automatically actions by way of popping out a text box on the screen on which one can start writing with the S-Pen. How this simple task works can be found here http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=H3f3WD0benU#t=42s

    Moreover, the S Note application (the pop out text box belongs to this application) syncs to Evernote! The process of accessing the S-Pen to note something on the screen is no different to pulling out a pen from your pocket, opening the book and making a note on it.

    This way I not only try and push the limits of being paperless but also avoid not carrying more than 1 device (a phone is a device that one carries always) rather than a Moleskine / Field Notebook. I only hope Penultimate for Android arrives sooner than later (do pl convey this to our friends at EN). I also have an iPad on which I use Penultimate extensively.

    Go Paperless!

  5. I use a LiveScribe SkyPen and notebook for paper notes, for the same reasons you are using Field Notes, plus the SkyPen will upload the notes to Evernote when it can connect to Wifi (which is all the time any more).

      1. I think it’s in my working style, and in what I’m used to. I’ve been using these pens since they came out — now on my third generation of them. The SkyPen is much more convenient than the Echo (second gen) — don’t have to be around a desktop or laptop to upload the notes. I rely on the SkyPen when doing interviews for publication, for keeping conference notes, and for the odd “memo to self”. The only wrinkle for me (now solved) was that for a year or so there was no way to archive the contents of the pen. Fortunately, I bought the 8GB version, so I had room for lots of stuff on the pen. But in the last month, LiveScribe has fixed the archiving issue, so it’s all good now.

  6. It’d be great if IOS started supporting widgets like Android does. I have a widget on my screen that lets me create a new picture, text, page scanner or audio note in Evernote with one tap. If I put it on my primary screen, then my only action is to unlock my phone and click.

    As an alternative to using paper but when I can’t create a note on my phone (and since I can’t afford a tablet right now), I created a wet-erase notebook. I laminated some paper and intend to bind a few sheets together. Then, I write on it with my wet erase pen. Later, I scan it with the page scanner/camera and then wipe the sheet clean.

    1. Jenna, I think that would be a huge help, and it is similar to what has been available with the Mac version of Evernote for a while. Single-tap, quick start up, and off you go.

  7. For “fast start” capture I like Drafts from Agile Tortoise. It’s particularly useful as a go-to app because it’s a case of start drafts, make a note, then think about where to put it.

  8. You need to switch to Android 🙂 I have a Galaxy Note 8 tablet I bought strictly to take notes with and I still get the feel of handwriting. You can create gestures or use widgets to immediately open Evernote or other note taking apps.

  9. I’m almost never without my iPad. I use Noteshelf instead of Penultimate because it is easier and has a magnification writing option that lets you pack a lot onto a page. It also doesn’t save every little thing to Evernote, just the things I want there and I put them where I want them, not in the Penultimate notebook. Since I use it so often a double tap on the home key almost always brings it up in the first screen.

  10. I’m clearly the techno-challenged one in this discussion, but I keep reflecting on your time study and can’t help wondering how the Field Notebook saves you time. You still have to take it out, write your thoughts down, then you have to remember to take a picture of your entries and label and file them in Evernote, etc. All of that takes time. How does that square? Mind you, I have no issue with the Field Notebook — it actually appeals tremendously. Anne Lamott, writer, just folds an index card length-wise and sticks it and a pen in her back pocket in case a moment of inspiration hits her. My walks are sacred-convene-with-nature times for me, so no notes allowed.

    1. The processing time is on the back end instead of the front end. Sometimes things are moving so quickly (in a meeting, a conversation on the street, or just having to get something down right now before the thought flies away due to distractions) that 30 seconds on the front end, and the thought/opportunity will be gone; whereas, extra processing time on the back end will not result in the thought being lost.

      And I don’t know about anyone else, but I have also found – at least for a few versions of Evernote – that if you hit the “add” button too soon after launching the program, it would crash after about 10 seconds, losing all kinds of extra time and causing incredible frustration.

    2. Pam, pdw is right. It has entirely to do with flow. Interrupting a thought or notion to spend 30 seconds getting out your phone, unlocking it, opening an app, creating a note and starting to type is just too much of a break in flow, especially when doing something else at the same time, like walking. It is much faster on the front-end to pull out the Field Notes notebook, scribble the note and be done with it.

      On the back end, since all of the week’s notes are brought into Evernote at the same time, there is a lot less overhead than doing it scattered throughout the week, in real time.

      I try to avoid jotting notes on walks, but I’ve lost enough good thoughts to know better and I will sacrifice the peace of the walk to capture a good thought. 🙂

  11. Apple guys could implement the same quick access to Camera in lock screen to a customer app selection.

    This is a solution to save these additional 6 seconds on total loading.

  12. I used password lock for a long time – had to, because kiddo would pick up my phone and access internet or other things he wasn’t supposed to. I no longer use password lock because (a) slowed things down too much; and (b) emergency responders would not be able to access my emergency contacts. If I lose my phone, I can lock it remotely. If it is stolen, I can wipe it. Any truly sensitive information is password protected within the app. In all the years that we have been using cell phones, I only know of one time that anyone in my family or office has had a phone stolen or lost, and that was long before smartphones… before mobile phones even fit in your pocket…

  13. I use whatever is handy and makes sense for the situation. I carry an Olympus digital voice recorder when I’m going out. Great for capturing thoughts while I am walking. Could do the voice notes on the iPhone, but there’s that lost time on the front end again. Can transcribe later. If it’s a long, involved note, I can connect the DVR to Dragon (or use Dragon Dictate on the iPhone and to heck with the front end loss).

  14. Interesting to see how everyone keeps notes on the move. I mail myself a note on my iPhone when on the move then deal with it later (process it). Not timed it but works for me. I never carry anything but my phone, wallet and keys.

    I also have the Moleskin notebook for quick note taking at my desk or if I am chairing meetings and have to talk and write together. I then take a picture and file to Evernote in a suitable folder for processing. Sometimes the pen is quite simply the quickest note taker but I go paperless wherever possible.

    Great posts and discussions.

  15. I text notes to myself using the Evernote email address. Takes just a moment to text and I even let Siri help me with that.


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