Why Taking Notes by Hand Reaps Business Benefits

By Margot Carmichael Lester, Staples® Contributing Writer

You may be thinking that taking notes on your laptop, tablet or phone makes you more productive. But several studies, including a 2014 paper from researchers at Princeton and UCLA, found that students who took notes by hand had a deeper conceptual understanding of the subject matter and were able to apply and integrate the information better than students taking notes on laptops.

The reason is cognitive processing, a fancy term for how our brains evaluate, store and recall information, and then use it to solve problems and make decisions. The Princeton–UCLA research found that when we take notes by hand, we listen more carefully, distill the information we hear, and summarize it, rather than writing everything down verbatim as we’re prone to do when typing. This more active thinking improves understanding and retention.

And there’s more: Writing by hand may even increase our confidence, according to joint research from Harvard, HEC Paris and the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. The researchers suggest that because writing is slower than typing, our brains have time to reflect on our thoughts, which enables us to deliberate a little more about our ideas. The study shows this extra processing time can prompt us to put more time and effort into execution because we feel more certain of our path.

Maybe that’s why Moleskine, the maker of high-end notebooks and planners, was named one of the world’s top Productivity Companies by Fast Company. In fact, they were key event drivers behind National Handwriting Day.

We asked entrepreneurs and small business owners who are devoted to writing by hand — whether in those nostalgic composition books or beautiful journals like Moleskines — to explain the benefits they get:

Processing. “I find taking notes by hand more productive for processing information,” says mobile-based education consultant Richard Gentry, author of Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—From Baby to Age 7. “It’s more productive when I need to be selective or when I need to organize or synthesize my thoughts at a deeper level. Taking notes by keyboarding tends to be automatic. I may type more of what’s being said or more of what’s in the text, but I’m not processing my notes at the same level. My experience is supported by recent research that suggests the pen is mightier than the keyboard for learning. So if you want to learn something, write it out with a pen — don’t type!”

Flexibility. For Rory Briski, a consultant in Bellevue, WA, the staying power of handwriting is critical. “I can easily write, draw and go back to areas I’ve already written on to edit, clarify or add commentary. My notes are full of arrows, underlines, little drawings, stars, words scratched out and changed and all sorts of other annotations and clarifications. These things just aren’t possible when typing.” When we type, we’re more inclined to delete rather than cross out, losing the thought forever.

Nonlinear Thinking. “I find that using pen and paper instead of a device allows me to take notes in a free-flowing fashion, and I retain the information better, too. Ideas aren't always linear,” notes Mary Keller, founder of Denver’s hive + ivy, which provides flat-rate consulting services to small businesses and solopreneurs. “Handwritten notes also facilitate the organic process — it’s easier to think outside the box when you can write outside the lines.”

Perspective. “I usually don’t know what’s going to be important in the long run until after a meeting is over, so typing everything as the meeting is progressing would be a waste,” Briski says. “Some may say so is writing it all down but again, with paper, I can easily scratch something out or draw a circle around it and jot a note with a question mark or any of a hundred other annotations I can quickly make by hand.”

Detox. Nate Hanson, CEO of Sumry in Portland, OR, uses notebooks as a creative break from computers and other technology. “Sometimes you don’t want apps taking over certain creative aspects of your life. If I am locked into my phone or computer screen all day, my brain has a hard time being creative. There are many apps aimed at recording the creative things we dream up so we can use them later, but I know I have a hard time coming up with creative ideas when I stare at screens all day. With a computer or phone, I’m limited to a keyboard or my thumb. I usually have my best ideas when I break away from the screen and do something unrelated. Then inspiration strikes.”

Many entrepreneurs keep their journals for easy reference, whether it’s looking up details of a meeting, recalling the genesis of an idea or simply taking a stroll down memory lane.

“I love that I can go back to my first notebook and see the start of my business and watch it unfold in the pages — from the first sketch of my design to current day when I am planning how to tackle my first apparel/accessory tradeshow,” notes Mt. Prospect, IL–based Amy Olson, designer and owner of the Kuhfs accessory line.

Interested in starting a journal to improve your productivity and effectiveness? Here are some tips:

  • Paper. Choose ruled paper if you crave structure, blank if you prefer freewheeling note taking. Either way, avoid thin papers. “I like to write on the front and back of pages to get a lot of information in a notebook, so I need thick pages so the ink doesn’t bleed through,” Hanson says.
  • Options. If you gather business cards or other small items, select a journal with a pocket or two for easy storage. A closure is nice, too, to keep pages from getting crinkled in your bag. And if you use tools like Evernote, look for a journal with smart stickers.
  • Durability. You’re going to use your journal daily, so it needs to stand up to wear and tear. “The leather-bound notebooks have to be able to take a beating. If I’m in India or Brazil or Paris, I need something that will go the distance,” Briski notes.
  • Size. You’ll be toting your journal everywhere. “The most important factor is making sure it’s big enough to work in and small enough to carry with you everywhere,” explains Boston-based photographer Matt McKee.
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