The Lure of Paper Systems

Not long ago, I came across Ryan Holiday’s notecard system for remembering, organizing, and using everything he reads. It was instantly appealing to me, the way that reading about John Gadd’s journals changed the way I did my own journals back in 2017. You can read about Ryan’s methods at length, but the gist of it is that he puts everything onto 4×6 index cards which he then categorizes, files, and then uses for whatever he needs. As soon as I finished reading his post (which was originally written in 2014) I bought myself 300 4×6 index cards with the idea of testing out the method with my own reading notes. (A few examples that I used for this post are below.)

I enjoy reading, but I also read to learn. I mark up books, both paper and digital, and then I take those notes and capture them in Obsidian. After that… not much happens. It took a fair amount of time for me to write the scripts that I used to capture those notes and link them the way I wanted in Obsidian. I like being able to see the web of relationships that form, but the return hasn’t been worth the investment.

This seems to be a theme with me when it comes to digital systems. I find very cool tools, and then decide that they aren’t quite cool enough, that they need more. I’ll then spend a ton of time writing my own code to integrate, automate, and manipulate the tools to do something very specific for me–in this case, take my Kindle highlights and notes and move them into Obsidian. I spent years doing this with Evernote, only to find my use of Evernote scale back to basic document capture. I’ve probably spent more hours writing scripts to automate tasks around my writing than I have actually writing fiction. And I can’t even begin to quantify the amount of time I have spent investigating tools, switching to them for a period of time, only to find something else later.

I find myself increasingly drawn back to paper systems. Recently, I tried switching to a digital journal as a mean to be more efficient, but ultimately switched back to paper. I’ve never found a notes app that works well for me for ephemeral notes. Instead, I’ve been incredibly happy using Field Notes notebooks to serve this purpose. And while I do have a digital version of my reading list, my master list is contained in the pages of a Leuchtterm 1917 notebook.

a recent page from my master reading list notebook
A recent page from my “master” reading list notebook.

Thinking about this, it seems that paper systems are more effective for me than digital ones. There are a number of reasons for this, but they boil down to four things: simplicity, ease-of-use, effectiveness, and longevity

Simplicity

  • If I need to make a quick note, I simply pull out my Field Notes notebook and jot it down. I have yet to find an app that works faster or more reliably than that.
  • When I want to write in my journal, I pull it off the shelf and start writing. There is no need to log into a computer, or open a document, no need to worry about formatting or data syncing.
  • For me, the thing I want to do needs to be really simple, otherwise, I’ll eventually give up on it.

Ease of use

  • You can’t get much simpler than scribbling in a notebook or on an index card. There are no keyboard commands to remember, commands that often vary from one app to another. There is nothing to “save” or “open.” I don’t have to worry about syncing with cloud services, or whether a password has expired.
  • If the power is out, or I don’t have Internet access, my notebooks and note cards are still accessible and usable.

Effectiveness

These simple system work for me. I have little processes I’ve built up (how I number my journal entries for easy indexing) or how to Iabel post ideas in my Field Notes notebook so that I can easily identify them for later use.

But perhaps what makes these systems most effective is that I don’t get distracted writing code to try to improve them. Being on paper, they are already about as refined as they can get.

Longevity

I still have notebooks from college, and diaries from 25 years ago. I have school papers going back to kindergarten. Yet I have only a small number of digital files from college: a few papers, a few stories I wrote. Most notes I took on the computer back then are gone. I can’t begin to imagine how much digital stuff I’ve created that has been lost over the years, not by accident, but because I simply didn’t care enough to keep it. For me, if I can touch it, it seems to matter more than if I can’t.

There is always the question of how long digital media will last. We’ve only had it in the modern sense for about fifty years. But there are countless diaries and journals that have survived hundreds of years. Famous examples include John Adams1 and John Quincy Adams, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Pepys, and of course, Leonardo Da Vinci. As Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography of Da Vinci:

His mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after 500 years, which our town tweets likely won’t be.

But it is not just the paper of famous people that lasts. Currently, I am reading The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson. In it, he describes the early battles of the Revolutionary War in great detail, often relying on the diaries of average citizens and militia on both sides of the fight. I’ve made it through the first three chapters as of this writing, and along the way, encountered the following citations:

  • …Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie told his diary.
  • A physician visiting from Virginia told his diary…
  • …recorded in his diary
  • …Lieutenant Barker of the King’s Own told his diary.
  • …a parson told his diary
  • …a deacon in Brighton noted in his diary.
  • …Reverend Ezra Stiles told his diary…
  • Horace Walpole, ever astringent, told his diary…

There are about half a dozen more and that’s in just the first three chapters. You get the idea. There is a level of confidence in the longevity of paper systems that just doesn’t isn’t there with digital systems. Paper can burn, of course, but I treat paper with more care than I do digital documents.


One of the reasons I’ve put a lot of effort into digital systems in the past is to leverage their ability to do things faster than I can do them myself. Searching for something is a great example of this. Having my journals in digital form means that I could easily search for stuff in them. But when I have kept them in digital form, I’ve found that I simply don’t search them enough to make it worthwhile. Instead, I’ve developed a simple way of indexing my journals (on paper) so that if I don’t know immediately where to go, I can use the index as a guide.

a recent journal "index" page
Sample index page for August 2021. Number in parentheses represent journal entries on the topic

My reasons for building the scripts that take my reading notes and import them into Obsidian was to leverage Obsidian’s ability to link notes together. I thought I’d gain new insights from this. But this wasn’t how things turned out. The notes go in automatically, and I never look at them again. It has been different with the notecards. After finishing a book, I’ll go through it and make notecards from things I’ve highlighted in the book. I’ll organize them by topic or theme and them file them away. I do the same thing for anything I read: magazine articles, blog posts, etc. That means that some themes (say “Paper v. digital” — see the images above) contain cards from many different sources. That is much more useful to me. And there is something about the tactile use of paper, whether notebooks or cards, that impresses them into my memory better than looking at the same information on a screen.

More than any of that, however, is the time saved by not writing code to build all kinds of integrations that I won’t end up using. Instead, I can just read, or write, or jot downs notes.

This is not to say that paper is always better. I use Obsidian, for instance, for all of my work-related notes. I used to keep my notes in those marble notebooks you find for 50-cents at Target during back-to-school sales. But I do search work notes frequently, and often refer back to them. It makes much more sense to me to have those notes in digital form. I use Obsidian because underneath, it is just plain text and compatible with everything.

Calendars work better for me in digital form than they do on paper.

I prefer paper books to digital versions and paper magazines to electronic ones, but the fact that the latter take up no physical space is a big plus. So I read books on a Kindle in lieu of paper when it is convenient, and I read magazines mostly on my phone, except for a handful that I get in the mail each month, also because it is convenient.

But isn’t digital easier? Maybe, but maybe easy is not the point. In his post on his card system, Ryan Holiday writes:

I don’t want this to be easy. Writing them down by hand forces me to take my time and go over everything again (taking notes on a Kindle is too easy and that’s the problem). Also being able to physically arrange stuff is crucial for gettin gate structure of your book or project right. I can move cards from one category to another. As I shuffle through the cards, I dumb into stuff I had forgotten about.

This resonated with me. The ability to collect random bits and shuffle them and reshuffle them, that tactile feeling of manipulating the information, is important to me, and it is something that is much more difficult to do in digital systems that exist today. If you think of each “note” in Evernote as a card, how do you “shuffle” the notes into some useful order? How do you reshuffle them when needed? How do you easily “flip” to a random card? Ditto notes in Obsidian.

Paper systems are also cheap compared to their digital counterparts. Even my more expensive Moleskine Art Collection notebooks (about $28/each) cost less than half of an annual subscription to Evernote. And for the price of an iPhone or a MacBook, how many good notebooks, index cards, fountain pens, etc. could I buy that would far outlast the need for me to upgrade said phone or laptop?

A few days ago, I sat in my office with a 1996 diary in my lap, flipping through the pages and stopping now and then to read a passage. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just doing a bit of time travel. I could have done the same thing in a different way if that diary had been in digital form, but it wouldn’t have been the same. I wouldn’t have seen my own handwriting, and the cross-outs I’d made here and there. I wouldn’t have seen the color of the ink change from one day to another, or how I wrote in cursive one day and printed the next. I would have missed the blood stain on one page from a cut, or the corner I’d torn off a page to jot something down.

The lure of paper systems is about more than simplicity, ease of use, effectiveness, and longevity. The lure of paper systems, for me, is about history. The paper contains history. It yellows with age. It carries stains. It shows wear. It has a feel and smell and even a sound: pages riffling; that tap of an index card on your fingers; the whisper of a fountain pen across the page. Digital systems have none of these things, at least not to the extent that paper has. I can take a Field Notes notebook into the woods on a hike with me and not feel connected to the world. I can’t say the same when I have my phone and note-taking apps in my pocket.

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  1. Yes, I recognize the irony of linking to a digital version of a paper diary that has been around for over 200 years.

5 comments

  1. I recognize that restlessness, but shifting tools all the time, costs a lot of time too. No tool is perfect.
    I still have all the personal WP and Word files from the 80ties, but WP is gone and newer versions of Word are not able to read it. And that’s a bad thing. Not to mention Lotus 1-2-3 files!

    Bringing all the digital stuff back into handwriting is a lot of work, or do you leave everything where it is?

    Another thing that you mention is that handwriting on paper lasts a long time. Well, I am no Leonardo da Vinci, so when I’m gone they can burn and delete everything. I still have 5 boxes of my father’s “stuff on the attic. They are there for 30 years already, I never read anything and I don’t know what to do with it. I suppose my sons will have to deal with that as well; they are mentally not so attached.

    1. Jaap, you are absolutely right about the costs of shifting tools all the time. It is not my intention to convert all the existing digital stuff to paper. This was more of a realization on my part that despite all of the bells and whistles of digital systems, and all of the expectations I have that they will simplify things for me, that really hasn’t been the case, and that when it comes down to it, paper is simpler, and easier for much (not all) of what I do.

      I have a fascination with journals. I think there is a lot unexplored history and even analytical data in the countless unread journals out there. Atkinson’s book is but one small example where a large source of eyewitness reporting of battles from the American Revolution come from the journals of farmers, merchants, and ordinary citizenry called to arms. I look at my own journals as not only a repository of memory (as I see things), but I of lesson I’ve learned and how my ideas and thoughts have changed over time. I also think that my kids might one day be interested in these, but maybe they won’t. It seems to me that if they are, they are much more likely to survive and be treated with care in physical paper form than as digital files in some storage medium.

  2. This is interesting. I have a real affection for notebooks and paper and have two boxes of filled notebooks in my loft. It’s a collection I’ve been building for more than ten years with the idealised notion that one day I will be able to get them all out and put on shelves for easy access. But recently I have started the long process of bringing them all over to digital. A family tragedy has made me want easy access to the information in those notebooks and I have come to the conclusion that the best way to get it is digitally. Also, in the process of convincing myself to take on this work I have thought a lot about who might want to read them when I’m dead and how they would do it. My conclusion was that a digital file is more likely to be kept because it’s small, easy to store and can have perfect copies made. It seems more likely that my son will keep hold of a well organised collection of text files than a dozen or more boxes of paper notebooks. They are written in Markdown so future access shouldn’t be a concern.

    1. Jaap, there is some irony there. That said, going paperless was always an experiment for me. I stated as much when I wrote about the elusive paperless office in 2010. What I discovered was that it was not practical for me to go entirely paperless. That’s me, though. I still think the Going Paperless posts have value because they show my evolution and thought process, and also, they may prove useful to others who are more successful going paperless than I was. It’s a good example of how my mind changes with new information over time.

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