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I started wondering recently if paper really could be the way to go. That is, in my everyday, non-GTD-obsessive personal issue tracking and task management. Here's why I'm considering this:

  1. A task manager application's window is on the same playing field as any one of a million distractions (think web browser & co). If I stick a note on my actual, physical desk it's there and, due to its physical nature, I can't really ignore it. This point can obviously be translated into dozens of scenarios (alert in mobile app vs. sticker on front door, bills placed somewhere notable vs. bill-tracking app, etc.)

  2. Digital text has way less substance-- It can be deleted with a swift keystroke or, better yet, deleted along with all its assigned metadata. In a paper planner you can strike through items, but everything leaves a mark - you'll be reminded that there was something you should've done.

  3. I've been trying to leave myself more glaring reminders (paper, that is) both at home and elsewhere and it sorta seems to kinda work. I'm not sure if I'm just imagining this (placebo-effect-style) or if there have been studies or lengthier discussions about this confirming that physical reminders are indeed more effective. Any insight would be appreciated!

Then again, I realize that digital GTD and other, more simple methods done via software have enourmous upsides. I'm just thinking, at the task level: what's more important? Alerts, intelligent reminders, etc (digital) or substance, tactility (physical)?

Bottom line: is paper more effective for people who are prone to a bit too much procrastination on their computers and mobile devices? Have there been studies looking into this?

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5 Answers 5

I agree that these answers will probably be quite subjective and personally tailored.

For myself, I only use paper as a means to get things into electronic form. Specifically, everything goes into emacs org-mode. It also comes down to my specific line of work. I need to document my work for intellectual property purposes, and the bottom line, for me, is that I could never take the amount and quality of notes with paper as I can electronically.

I do use post-its for quick actions (like calling someone back, or emailing info to someone), and when the action is done, I throw the post it away. For some of your specific concerns:

A task manager application's window is on the same playing field as any one of a million distractions (think web browser & co).

Agreed. The internet (including SE sites!) are horribly bad for me. StayFocused and LeechBlock are about the best things I've found yet. Even better... just don't open a browser. Even better... find someone who also struggles with productivity and tell them about your struggles with staying on task. Just letting someone know often helps me; otherwise, I can almost get into a negative spiral of feeling bad that I've wasted more time, and then I just waste more time. Stupid, but it's the truth!

Digital text has way less substance-- It can be deleted with a swift keystroke...

Backups! I have scripts setup to make backups every hour, and at the end of every day/week/month.

In a paper planner you can strike through items, but everything leaves a mark - you'll be reminded that there was something you should've done.

I don't want to play the org-mode violin constantly, but it is pretty nifty. All todos that I mark as done are accessible later. They stop showing up in my todo list, but I can always see the "paper" trail of what I've done, along with timestamps indicating changes in state.

I've been trying to leave myself more glaring reminders...

I agree that for things I just can't forget, physical objects do help me. Especially putting the thing with something else that's essential -- putting my car keys on the note, or the note on my computer power button, or something like that. Forgetting is, well, something we don't know we did until it's too late. I don't know about studies, but the beauty of physical reminders is that you put them in smart locations when you are conscious of them so your unconscious future self will be reminded.

Electronic reminders are much the same, but I agree that they seem to be easier to push aside.

I'm not sure how much this helps. For myself, I much prefer electronic data management for anything with multiple details/steps, longer-ish notes, etc. I only use paper for quick essential actions. I love having data around to look back on, and I simply type better than I write and can fill up loads of files without worrying about which notebook or pad it's in. Org-mode is a huge help in this, as it has the ability to search multiple files in a snap. That's my take.

You'll probably end up going with whatever works. Whether or not studies exist... if you stumble upon something that works for you (like your notice of physical notes being effective) -- use it! It doesn't take a bunch of people talking about their productivity theories to establish that something is actually working in your life!

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+1 for org-mode –  Bernd Weiss Jun 24 '11 at 9:21
    
Thanks for links to StayFocused and LeechBlock. I learn SO much from my fellow SE members! :-) –  Kristina Lopez Oct 6 '12 at 0:33

All answers are likely to be subjective.

My view is that for day or week lists it makes little difference what you use and you are best sticking to what you are comfortable with.

For longer term planning my perspective is that paper is the way to go.

The reason is thought.

If you have your long-term to do list electronically you will throw things at it, glance at it occasionally and "review" it (in about 4 minutes).

When it is on paper you build up a stack of things to add, are reminded what the original order was and a proper review will require you to consciously read and order each item.

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As far as I can tell, there are advantages and disadvantages on both sides of the issue. Paper is portable, requires no power, and is simple to use. Electronic notes are easier to back up, searchable, and editable (you point this out as a possible problem).

You mention less procrastination on paper - have you ever spent half an hour doodling when supposed to be working on something? :)

As I see it, the typical pros and cons seem to balance out. So the deciding factor may be whether you simply prefer the paper aesthetic, or like the advantages of electronic notes. I'm still torn...

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It's interesting how we interpret meaning, others and our own. When you ask to constrast paper and digital, I thought in terms of organization and structure. Indeed you tagged your question with organization.

Paper isn't constrained by the limits placed on digital systems by its programmers. Lay out cards, pages, etc. in any order you need to, in any shape you like. Gather them up and redistribute them to suit your own purposes. Software can only provide you with capabilities *explicitly added by its programmers.

But the details for your ? seems to focus on ticklers, reminders or some other form of nagging to complete your tasks (as exemplified by the procrastination tag). And that seems to be the issue you want to resolve internally.

I've been trying to leave myself more glaring reminders (paper, that is) both at home and elsewhere and it sorta seems to kinda work.

Does it need to be paper to remind you? Couldn't a visual display for a digital system be just as effective?

Panic's status board

In fact, the digital system would allow you to be more productive because you're not generating or collecting paper that you use as reminders. You could even have a digital system produce an audible signal to remind you of important tasks.

Unless you still don't do the tasks because you just prefer to use paper, in which case paper is more advantageous for you.

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I think a mix is best. For a really quick reminder, or for a quick note, paper often has the advantage. It's often much quicker to access (no booting up required) and it's much easier to write than type while handling a phone.
For longer-term planning, where you are exploring possibilties, paper is also superior, in that you can quickly erase things, draw arrows, circle things etc., and can have more of a free flow in putting down thoughts (even though OneNote evens out some of these advantages, and when using it on a tablet they become even smaller).
For everything in between, I would go with electronic tools. Actual reminders instead of absolute dependence on active reviews, and metadata that allows different views on your items are huge advantages over paper. With smartphones now commonplace, there are enough solutions where you can take your system with you everywhere, so that accessibility is no longer an issue.

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