Writing things down

I was at the gym listening to an episode of Invisible Office Hours where they discussed rituals. One thing that I related to was Jason mentioning that he hand writes his to-do list. He tried every to do list app out there and nothing stuck as well as writing on a piece of paper.

I had this same issue in the past few months. My work uses a project management website that I despise (and nobody ever uses properly), so putting my tasks in there was a pain and I hardly ever did it. I tried putting them in Evernote, didn’t stick. Tried using Keep to host my to do list, didn’t help much either. I go the Todoist browser extension, that flopped after just a few days.

I found that writing on a big sheet of paper and crossing things off worked much better.

Why is writing better?

I shouldn’t necessarily say it’s better than typing, I would not want to hand write this whole blog. But writing by hand helps you commit things and ideas to memory better than typing.

I found this out myself in college. I was usually one of the only people in my classes to not have a laptop. I didn’t bring the laptop because it was too heavy and I had to bike. I would see people on Facebook (most common) or just on a random site, but rarely did I see them actually taking notes (at least the screens I could see).

I took tons of notes, because I didn’t have the distractions that a laptop and internet connection can bring.

For 3 years I took all my notes by hand and did really well. That’s not to say that hand writing my notes led me to do well in class, but I think it is a factor. If you’re disciplined enough to forgo the laptop and write things down and pay attention, you’re probably more likely to remember what’s happening in class.

The science

There’s an article in Scientific American that talks about the benefits of writing longhand to remember more and understand material better when in class.

The study they cite called “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard” is from Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, which “demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more”.

“Across three experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information.  Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand.  As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes.  In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.”

They liken the findings to different types of cognitive processing that go on when you’re taking notes on a laptop versus taking them by hand.

“Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture.  Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.  Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention.  By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.”

In the study’s abstract, they also mention that even without distractions on the laptop, those focused just on taking notes on their laptop “may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower process.”

One of the major issues is that laptop note-taking students are writing their notes verbatim, and that this “high verbatim note content was associated with lower retention of the lecture material.” It seems like students are just taking notes as they hear them, and not really processing them resulting in a shallow understanding of the lecture.

The study’s authors tried to combat this verbatim note-taking issue by instruction students “to think about the information and type notes in their own words”. But those taking notes on the laptop still “showed the same level of verbatim content and were no better in synthesizing material than students who received no such warning”.

The authors even proved that whether you ask the note takers to take a memory test immediately after taking thewriting-on-hand notes or letting them know they would be tested a week later, the longhand note takers still outperformed those on laptops.

“Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.”

Why don’t more people hand write?

I get it, the act of handwriting can be cumbersome at times, especially since we have our phones always nearby. When I’m at the gym or out away from my desk and have an idea, I will jot it down in my Keep app. I don’t carry a notebook around with me.

Notes on apps are searchable. In Evernote, if you just remember one keyword of something you knew you wrote in there a year ago you will likely be able to find it. If you try to do the same with a notebook, good luck.

Most of the time, if I need to jot down a quick note I will put it on my hand. Maybe it’s something I need from the store or an appointment to remind myself of, I will always remember because I see it on my hand all day long. I’ve even thought of tattooing the words “To Do” on my hand because I write stuff on it so much.


How can handwriting be made better?

There are journal systems out there, yes it’s true.

One that I’m looking to try that seems very popular is the Bullet Journal.

Here’s an illustration of some of the concepts from Kim at tinyrayofsunshine.com.



Other than that, I’m not really sure how handwriting can be made to be more enticing. It’s slow, cumbersome, and your hand will cramp after a full hour of note taking.

But if you read the studies and want to improve how you take in information, you’ll want to try handwriting for yourself.