Productivity Tip: When and how to use paper vs software

One of the problems with giving people advice is that certain topics are so... personal. Our previous experiences, current technology and outside pressures inevitably corral us into a particular line of thinking or acting. So it is with the debate over paper vs. software solutions. Personally, I've found a mix of both to be handy. A quick poll of the TUAW crew indicates a similar divide: Some of us use paper almost to the exclusion of software, whereas some of us went digital once we found enough apps to deliver us from dead trees. Most of us use a blend of both, however. In this week's productivity tip, I want to discuss when you might want to use paper or an app, and some specific apps and resources for both.

Paper (and whiteboards, etc.)

The thing about paper is that you have to write on it. That seems simplistic, but for some that's actually a big deal. I happen to learn by doing something, and I find I remember notes better if I write them out versus typing them. The other (obvious) thing about paper is that it isn't connected to distractions like social networks and calendars, push notifications, etc.. If those are your problem, maybe switching on Do Not Disturb and sitting outside with pen and paper are a way to really focus on whatever you're trying to capture.

I'm also a big fan of mind mapping, and while there are apps for this (discussed below), I have yet to replace my large format rolls of paper with an iOS device. There's something primitive and powerful about scrawling ideas and notes on a giant canvas, then seeing what patterns you can divine.

Another advantage to paper is that you can hang the stuff wherever you want so things are always top-of-mind. Steve uses Post-It notes for reminders. Megan uses a Moleskine for capturing checklists -- and she correctly notes that there's something satisfying about actually drawing a line through stuff you've done. Dave has written a great post on Unclutterer about using a notebook for the ARC system.

As for me, I can just do more with paper in certain ways. As this post from a time before the iPad notes, "paper is just more usable than a computer monitor." Sure, I can make annotations on a PDF, but it's not as easy in a PDF app to tear off 3 pages and line them up side-by-side to examine them.

Similarly, as you can see in the image at the top of this post, I've created a simple "task board" when apps like 30/30 and OmniFocus weren't really nailing a certain workflow for me. In this case, I have a certain number of things I have to do regularly, but they can't be called a project per se, they're more like categories. I also don't have to do every one of them every day, so I pull these (I call them pommes, which is why they have little apples on them) out of an envelope each day and set them up on the board. When I complete one, I put it below the middle of the board (hence the "Done" with a down arrow).

Each one of these "pommes" typically maps to a context in OmniFocus (and GTD, for that matter), and they represent the many hats I wear at TUAW. Each one is meant to be completed (more or less) in under 30 minutes. Some days I don't feel like digging into a lot of research, or maybe I just want to focus on writing. By putting them up on the board and being able to easily see them right there in front of me, I'm quickly able to see how much I've done or not done. Yes, I have tasks and projects in OmniFocus, but this allows me to structure my day around types of tasks, and greatly reduces the stress and feeling of being overwhelmed with "too much to do." I'm still working on this system, but on my most productive days it's a good way to batch my time.

Some other low-tech things I do, sometimes with a high-tech twist:

  • Use a whiteboard for mocking up web pages and quick mind mapping. Then I take a pic to save in Evernote.

  • In my kitchen I use a whiteboard calendar so my kids can easily see the stuff that is relevant to them. Often this means writing stuff from my Google calendar on the board, but there are worse things in life -- like the stress of kids not knowing what they are walking into when they come stay with me.

  • Use Moleskine notebooks when I travel. Often power is at a premium, and I like to travel light. Plus, during takeoff and landing I can't use my iDevices. Again, I try to capture this digitally later, either in OmniFocus, Evernote or a mind-mapping app.

  • Big ideas beg for a big canvas. I keep very large rolls of paper and oversized sketch pads in my house so I can periodically clear the kitchen table and go to town with ideas and connecting them. Sometimes this requires stitching pics together before dumping into (you guessed it) Evernote.

  • Cornell has a notes template here if you're in a meeting and worry about capturing things.

  • Lastly there are times when you just can't avoid using paper. Coupons I get at the self-checkout are printed, though I wish I could add them to Passbook (if Kroger ever hops on that wagon). But when I see a poster for a show on a telephone pole, I snap a pic of it. Nothing jogs the memory like seeing that pop up in your Photo Stream.

You can also use something like the iNotebook, Inkling or LiveScribe's offerings to write and capture to digital. I've only used the LiveScribe Pulse, but I find that adding complications subtracts from the organic nature of simply using paper. These also add considerable cost.


Obviously there are lots of limits when it comes to paper. Sharing among a distributed group is somewhat difficult. Contacts are better handled digitally when you get an email and can quickly add phone and address to your address book, or if you use a business card scanner app and text recognition. Speaking of recognition, natural language parsing has come a long way, so adding reminders and calendar events via Siri or Fantastical or Google Calendar is just so easy I will never use a paper calendar again.

When I was in middle school I used FastTrack Schedule to plan projects. Now I use a combination of DevonTHINK Pro (for research materials) and OmniFocus, but there are a good number of capable project managers out there, including Merlin and OmniPlan. If I were handling larger projects, I am sure I would rely upon those heavily.

Notes can absolutely have an advantage in digital form if you're busy linking things, as you can do in a wiki or software such as VoodooPad, which is excellent. There's also nvALT and a host of other note applications out there which can cross-link and insert multimedia in ways you can't replicate on paper.

When it comes to capturing ideas, Doc uses Drafts and voice recognition to quickly capture items. Similarly, Siri does a great job for adding Reminders. Fancy tricks like geolocation are all but impossible on paper.

The only problem with all of these: You have to know how to use them. Everyone knows how to use paper, however.

Some digital tools I use that attempt to simulate or replace paper-based equivalents:

  • SimpleMind for mind mapping (this has sync so I can access my maps on my Mac), although MindNode is good and Grafio allows a sort of scrapbooking.

  • Passbook as much as I can for plane tickets and customer loyalty cards. Some folks in team chat mentioned Lemon Wallet as well. I just hate fumbling for a paper ticket while I wait for first class to board.

  • Fantastical for scheduling (Mac and iOS) and BusyCal on my Mac instead of iCal.

  • Sketch Club for sketches, although Autodesk's SketchBook is good (just overkill for my needs usually), and Paper on iPad is simply wonderful. I also use Procreate (and a Pogo Connect) when I want to make a really great drawing.

  • Now that Penultimate is integrated with Evernote, it's hard to beat. That said, I kinda like Sketch Rolls when I don't have access to my paper at home.

But when to use what?

Well, this is really a personal choice. What I tell people is to try both and see what fits you best. It's hard to argue that digital contact management is a bad thing, and calendars are another one which paper doesn't do better than digital tools.

When it comes to notes and creating tasks, it all depends on how much you have to share with others and your own personal style. If you are building a spaceship, you're probably going to need some pretty complex project management tools, and paper will likely reduce your efficiency. If you juggle a couple of things a day, it's really satisfying to whip out a sheet of paper or note card and start crossing off tasks through the day. I used to use the heck out of these DIY "hipster" planners, and Dave Caolo points out these awesome productivity tools you can print courtesy of David Seah.

Try this: Pick one or the other for a solid week and see how it feels. If you get into the groove of reviewing your tasks in OmniFocus and you find satisfaction in clicking check boxes, there you go. If, on the other hand, you feel more accomplished writing down tasks and scratching through them, paper is your friend. Because we all work in such different ways, this sort of A/B testing is critical for determining your preferences. Hint: Use a simple to do app to prevent having to read a huge manual.


While I love gadgets and technology, we simply aren't in the Diamond Age just yet. I'd love to have an iPad which really felt like a book, but that doesn't exist yet. Yes, I'd love to save some trees, but there are times when my old monkey brain just wants to poke at a sheet of paper with a stick filled with graphite. There's still a case for paper. That said, I turn 40 this year and maybe I'm just wed to a particular workflow. In the end try out the tools and make an honest assessment of what works best for you.

Let me know if you have any suggestions in the comments below!