Going Paperless: On the Qualities of Useful Paper

If Sherlock Holmes lived in a paperless world, he might have said,

When you have tried to eliminate all paper, whatever remains, however improbable, must be useful.

In the years that I have been on this journey to go paperless, I’ve found that there is some paper that, no matter how much I’d like to get rid of it, I still find useful. In the last year or so, two types of paper have managed to survive, and recently, I have given up trying to get rid of them. Like a virulent strain of bacteria, these have survived my attempt to banish them, only to come back stronger.

As I have often emphasized in these posts, going paperless is an ongoing and evolving process. I will never be completely paperless until the rest of the world is completely paperless–something I very much doubt I will see in my lifetime. Going paperless means process the paper I do get, and minimizing the paper I use, but there are still a few places where I find paper useful.

1. Moleskine notebooks

In the last few months my primary method for taking notes has reverted to paper. I use an Evernote Moleskine notebook to take notes in meetings, and on phone calls1. If I watch a video on YouTube, I’ll jot the notes down in my Moleskine. I’ve found a renewed fondness for scratching out the notes with a pen on paper, but it is not this fondness that drives my use of the notebook: it’s my memory.

A page from my Evernote Moleskine notebook

I have found that, as I’ve grown older, I remember things far better if I write them down as opposed to typing them out. I’d read articles that discussed how handwriting had good cognitive benefits, but until I tried it myself, I wasn’t convinced. Of course, it could entirely be a placebo effect, but I feel like I better remember my notes when I write them out in a notebook, than when I type them via a keyboard2 Actually, this makes sense. Back in college, I wrote all my notes for lectures and reading in a notebook, and on later typed them into Microsoft Word 5.5. for DOS3. I was younger, but writing the notes, followed by typing cemented them in my mind.

Getting my handwritten notes into Evernote

Just because I’m writing the notes in a notebook doesn’t mean they don’t find their way into Evernote. I use Evernote’s Scannable app on my iPhone to pull my handwritten notes into Evernote. Here is the same page of notes from above captured in Scannable:

Photoshop notes

When these notes are pulled into Evernote, they look like this:

Evernote Photoshop Notes

And, it just so happens that my handwriting is clear enough (and Evernote is smart enough) that my handwritten notes are pretty much searchable the way they would be if I had typed them at the keyboard. For instance, if I search for the word “margins”, you can see that Evernote finds them in my scanned notes, despite my handwriting, and highlights them in the document.

Searchable Notes

2. Newspapers

I’ve also recently found myself reverting from type when it comes to newspapers, and occasionally magazines. While I have access to the Washington Post online, I find that after spending most of my day reading off a screen, I want to spend some time away from the screen. So in the mornings, I’ve been reading the Post in its traditional format–paper. And not just any paper, but good old-fashioned newsprint.

I find this relaxing, and less of a strain on my eyes. It gives me at least a little bit of time early in the day to read without reading off a screen. For the rest of the day, I will read email, documents, code, presentations, forms, social media, blogs, and articles off a screen. But I’ve come to find this time early in the day reading off paper to be relaxing, and enjoyable.

If I come across an article in the Post that I want to annotate, or share, then I jump online, and clip the article into Evernote using Evernote’s web clipper.

The same is true with magazines. While I get all of my magazines in electronic format (via Apple’s Newsstand), I relax  before bed by reading the paper version of the magazine. By avoiding screen time just before bed, I sleep better, too.

Most of my life is paperless, and is better for it. I can do things more efficiently. I have access to all of my information at my fingertips, no matter where I am. I can share information with those who need it quickly and easily. But there are a few places where, as improbable as it may seem, I still find paper to be useful. And I suspect that I always will.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. 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.

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  1. And because I will almost certainly be asked, I use a Pilot G-2 0.7 pen to write in my Moleskine
  2. Of course, this is me. Things might be wired differently for you.
  3. Still my favorite version of Word.


  1. Tranks a lot for this post. For changing my
    favorite Holmes quote and choosing the exactly the same workaround (moleskine, pilot g-2 0.7) for those situations where you actually need to write on paper.

  2. Jamie, how do you feel about the handwriting capabilities in Evernote and can you “say more” about whether you considered and why or why not using?

    1. I’ve never used the built-in handwriting features. While I have no problem using my iPad to sketch out diagrams using a tool like Paper (by FiftyThree), I just can’t get my handwriting to look right, even using a stylus. I write much faster with a pen and paper. So, unfortunately, I can’t speak much to the handwriting capabilities built into Evernote, other than to say that when I write on paper and scan in the pages, Evernote recognizes my handwriting just fine.

  3. Does Scanable save the image of your page as a PDF or a JPEG? I keep bouncing back and forth between the two for imaging my handwritten notes.

    1. It saves them as PNG files, but they are still searchable. I was able to search for words that appear in my scanned notes and they are highlighted just fine. On the Mac thick-client, there is also an option to convert the note to a PDF (if you wanted to do that).

  4. Is it necessary (or at least really better) to use an expensive “Moleskine-Evernote” notebook, or does it work with the most common notebooks?

  5. @Michel G, my question as well. Moleskine is very expensive and I just can’t convince myself to pay that much more for their notebooks.

    1. I’ve had no problems using Scannable to capture pages from the small Field Notes notebook I keep in my pocket at all times. It’s a smaller notebook and my handwriting isn’t as good when I use it (which is often on the fly), so I don’t get as many hits when trying to doing handwriting match searches in Evernote. But that’s probably due more to my handwriting.

  6. I use the moleskine evernote products. i get them at a good price at wordery.com. tey ship in a week or so.
    i primarily use the pocket square ones, i use the pocket cahiers for daily personal notes. i bought a nice leather cover them that hold two on amazon. i also have the meeting notebook, and calendar notebook. I have the special post-its that i havnt used yet. crazily i havent busted out any stickers from the notrebooks.

  7. I stumbled across your fascinating blog almost exactly a year ago, Jamie, just as I was making a sea change from paper packrat to digital fanatic and have enjoyed very much your thoughts since.
    I’d expected a much different kind of paper in this blog – maybe degrees with seals on valuable parchment or sentimental child’s first crayon drawing or pop-up art books, things that intrinsically have more value than just the information on them or that can’t be captured (yet?) digitally. And I was really surprised that you’re reading newspaper articles on paper. I can’t imagine going back to paper – on my Samsung Galaxy S (on which I use Evernote for keyboarding or speaking in notes on the go and snap lots of photos of things that I would draw) I have access to a paid New York Times subscription but can also easily access articles on a particular subject across the political and language spectrum (I live in Germany), which I could never do with just one newspaper. And after years of keyboarding I can’t write by hand much at all – I too have read about how handwriting is supposed to be a cultural activity with special connections to the brain and I have friends who swear that they learn more by hand – but I’m simply much too impatient (I can type pretty fast).
    Would love to hear what your thoughts on the future? Do you think that others too will “revert” or “return” to paper in some ways? What about the future of the book on paper? I’m really a fanatical digital convert, read only on the tablet or screen, don’t feel any eye strain (yet at least), only sign bills with a pen (and only bills that I can’t pay for by transfer), use the few remaining books in our household for doorstops (and we had thousands of them before our digital revolution), scan all cards and letters from others that we want to keep… the big file cabinet stuffed with packrat memories is next as we scan and toss. (Have already started to scan in my years of Moleskine diaries – OCR makes finding places and people and events in the past real again in a way I could never have imagined just a year ago, Evernote providing the perfect multimedia diary for me now for the last year.)
    Thanks again for your great blog, looking forward to your future thoughts!

    1. Jody, thanks for the kinds words! I suspect that, like many things, the move to paperless is a progressive, like the tide moving into shore. There is an initial rush because of the general newness of it, and because of enhanced capabilities. But after that rush, there is some regression to form, either because of comfort of practicality. (I started reading paper newspapers again, not because it wasn’t easier to read them on my iPad, but because I needed to give my eyes a break from constant (12+ hours!) of screen time every day.) It seems there is almost always a regression, if for no other reason than nostalgia. Just yesterday, walking through Barnes & Noble, I noticed a table that was filled with “new” record albums–actual albums–which are apparently making a comeback. No doubt due to nostalgia. Eventually we’ll settle on a happy medium that works best for us. This is why, from the outset, I’ve talked about going paperless: it is an ongoing process. Besides, you and I might be going paperless, but much of the rest of the world depends on paper and because we interact, we have to be prepared to deal with it as well for some time to come. I don’t know that paper will ever really go away. I do think it will change form. I think we’re likely to see a kind of digital paper that looks and perhaps even feels like paper, but can render things on a single sheet, and allows us to combine the digital and paper concepts into a single unit. This is a natural evolution.


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