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