Your Notebook Fundamentalism Is a Shame

In a recent on HBR article titled Alexandra Samuel explains how she can tell instantly that someone is wasting her time:

I knew right away, when you walked in here with a paper notebook — a paper notebook! — I realized that this meeting was not going to be a good use of our time.

You’d make better use of your time if you took your notes in digital form, ideally in an access-anywhere digital notebook like Evernote that makes retrieval a snap. If you had that, I could shoot you the link of the book I want you to read, or the contact card of the person you want to meet. And if you planned to act any of the ideas or outcomes from this meeting, you would want to pop the follow-up tasks into your task management program.

Dear Alexandra:

I often use paper notebooks. I don’t care what other people use. The means are not the ends.

I judge coworkers on their results, not their tools. I recommend everyone does the same.

If I worked with someone who used smoke signals and carrier pigeons but did better work than their fully upgraded neural implanted cyborg peers, I’d make sure they had all the firewood and bird feed they needed.  And by the same token, if the cyborgs did better work, I’d offer cyborg implants to the rest of the team to try.  It’s only after I see what people produce that I’d consider commentary on the means they used.

Most meetings I’m in are about people’s ideas. We prioritize what goes on it the meeting over worrying about notes for who isn’t in the room. We pitch ideas at whiteboards, we sketch strategies, and we use every tool each of us thinks helps us get whatever task we’re doing at the moment. Sometimes the latest gadgets are involved. Often it’s just paper and pens. But we’re all open minded about how we work together, and I think you should be too.

I’ve yet to work in a place where taking notes was a major concern for meetings. I’ve never heard of a notes crisis, or had teams complain they were overwhelmed with the burdens of writing, transcribing and reading notes. Most notes in most meetings in most of the history of the world are never read. I have no data to support that claim, but perhaps I’ve avoided workplaces that have fueled their own paranoia about what might get missed.

When I first read your post I thought it was a joke. Maybe it was and I didn’t get it. But if I take it seriously I’d be afraid to work with you. I’d assume you’d judge me before I even had a chance to show you what I can do. And given how many people will read what you wrote, you should keep this in mind when you start your next meeting.



33 Responses to “Your Notebook Fundamentalism Is a Shame”

  1. Rob Donoghue

    I feel overly cynical, but it kind of fell into place when I realized she’s pushing her Evernote book.

  2. Lizabeth Barclay

    I guess it’s all about her rather than effective communication.

    1. xian

      don’t you mean “her rather less than effective communication”?

      (actually I did understand what you intended but couldn’t resist the suggested edit)

  3. Phil Simon

    As you know, results aren’t just about quality; speed matters as well. I’ve seen some people who could do the work manually in four hours, but resisted new ways to do the same work–more accurately, to boot–in four minutes.

    Rob’s point is a good one.

    It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
    –Upton Sinclair

  4. Brad

    One of the all-time greatest designers in Formula 1 (Adrian Newey) still does all of his design work on paper before it gets handed off to the engineers who get it into the computer.

  5. Johanna

    I’d love to know what she thinks about Nathan Sawaya’s work. It is aweful because he uses only lego pieces and glue?

    1. Scott

      Her post was strictly about meetings so perhaps she’s more open about other tools in other work situations. It’s hard to tell from the post.

      1. Johanna

        I hope so, but thinking about this again: what about mental process you do when you’re handwriting a letter, on keyboard is just push-push-push. I’m fan of pen and paper, and I’m proud of that, and of criteria those tasks have built on my brain.

  6. Val

    With a notebook, I know where my data is and writing things down puts them in my brain, which I can also access anywhere and anytime.

    My experience hasn’t been great with EverNote so I am not a huge fan. They lost my local data when I tried to switch over to the paid service which gave me great anger. Their customer service was great, but losing data gets you and F+ in my book.

    1. Vicki

      “With a notebook, I know where my data is and writing things down puts them in my brain, which I can also access anywhere and anytime.”

      I hadn’t thought of this before but… yes! It does, doesn’t it.

  7. Jason

    There have been studies that show that recall of material on physical pages is higher than recall of material in electronic form. I don’t think they have narrowed down the causal link, but the correlation is very strong. My suspicion is that this has to do with mnemonics and spatial intelligence, and I expect that eventually electronic book formats will figure out how to push all the same buttons. But right now they do not match paper as a learning tool.

    That said, I find I use paper most often to augment short term memory, for instance when the speaker is rattling off a stream of consciousness I don’t want to interrupt, I’ll write down questions to ask when they come up for air.

    Trust me, you don’t want to have a technical conversation with me if I can’t take notes. You’ll be exhausted at the end.

  8. Drew

    I especially love this passage:
    If you had (an electronic system such as Evernote), I could shoot you the link of the book I want you to read, or the contact card of the person you want to meet.
    …as if there is no other imaginable way one might share a link with a colleague.
    If she is living in the bona-fide paperless office we had been told to expect, well I’m delighted for her.

  9. A Reader

    Typical BS from someone narcissist with an agenda to push, as has been pointed out by some of the earlier comments. The business world is replete with these types, self aggrandizing and arrogant beyond comprehension, they actually believe they are better than the rest of us and that we simpletons need to be enlightened by their wisdom and saved from ourselves.

    I’ll pass, thanks.

  10. Christoph Begall

    What I miss here is the difference between “me” and “you”. If evernote works for her, then — although it seems normal to to so nowadays — it simply wrong to assume, that it works for everybody. So what would happen, if she were to say: I want you to use evernote in our meetings, because “I could shoot you the link of the book I want you to read, or the contact card of the person you want to meet”, and that would reduce meeting time by 5 minutes and so you are wasting my time, by making me spell the name or giving you name and author of the book. She would clearly state how she is affected, and therefore the other person could reason or find a solution. (I neither believe in the 5 minutes nor that these are the things bothering her)

    I could think of a lot of reasons, Alexandra Samuel might have to advocate evernote in meetings. By not telling me, what it does to her when I am NOT using it, she does not enable me to solve a problem she sees in our interaction but forces her solution on me.

  11. Tim

    Can’t we all get along. To each their own. I am paperless and live out of Evernote. BUT when I am in a meeting with you it is ALL about the exchange of ideas not what format note taking works for you. I agree with many of her points because, that is what works for me. Evernote also knows this which is why they teamed up with Moleskine to release a physical book that is compatible with their App. You write all you want and if you want to share you can simply capture the page with EverNotes mobile apps (
    I would love to work with people that have a stock of firewood and bird seed. It would make our collaboration that much better, merging styles…

  12. Sean Crawford

    I read her whole hateful article. Part of her error was going on and on about “transcribing” and time lost “transcribing.” The implication being that each person in a meeting would be taking roughly the same notes. They don’t. (I have a book at home on “Two Hour Shorthand” but I haven’t bothered learning it)

    I see everybody scribbling and doodling only what they need, what works for them. That’s what I do too. (Even though I can touch-type Dvorak) And then the only thing that I ask to be transcribed for “everyone” is bare bones action minutes.

  13. Kevin Brennan

    Am I the only one who finds her post especially ironic given that Evernote has the ability to perform OCR on photographs of a handwritten notebook page? Which you can then search? I mean, they even have a partnership with Moleskine where they actively promote that feature!

  14. Joe Caropepe

    I think her fundamental assumption error is when she says, “… if you took your notes in digital form…”.

    Not all digital note-takers are equal. Not only are there differences in typing ability, there are differences when (not if) things go wrong.

    When that happens – and it always does – the digital note-taker “checks out” of the conversation. Something that never, ever happens with a pen & paper.

    Not to mention that my notes include lines, arrows, boxes & doodles….

    But I often transcribe my notes into Evernote. I’m thinking about the Moleskine/Evernote solution to speed this up, but haven’t tried it yet.


  15. Jeffrey

    Thanks for this. Her post might have been more palatable if it hadn’t been written with such a judgmental and perhaps even condescending tone.

  16. Mike Nitabach

    I agree 100% with you, Scott. This person’s techno-triumphalism is grotesque and disturbing. We work with extraordinarily complex cutting edge technologies in my lab, but that has fuck all to do with effective communication and note-taking, for which pen and paper are outstanding.

  17. Mike Nitabach

    Hilariously, she wrote an entire long-winded post on her personal blog about how she totally doesn’t care at all not even one little bit about the 100s of comments on the HBR blog harshly critical of her evernote shilling and lack of empirical justification for her claims. Sure thing!

    1. A Reader

      Of course she doesn’t care. She’s a textbook narcissist, why would she care what anyone else thinks?

  18. Alexandra Samuel

    Scott, your post does a great job of pushing this conversation forward, by zooming in on one of the key points of contention over my piece: to what extent can and should we hold our colleagues accountable for the way they work?

    In the good ol’ days, there wasn’t any reason to hold one another accountable for which tools we brought to a meeting, because the choice of ballpoint pen vs No. 2 pencil didn’t have any impact on how you’d be able to work together or follow up afterwards. In those days, as some old people like me will recall, the question of note-taking generally came down to which of the women in the room would be tasked with the job of typing up the notes and circulating them for the benefit of the group.

    But word processing, email and now web-based collaboration have changed all that. Fewer and fewer teams have administrative support per se; instead, professionals assume responsibility for taking their own notes, managing their own (almost exclusively digital) correspondence, and organizing their own tasks and calendars. And when we get together in one room, access to digital tools not only affects how quickly we can move from meeting to follow-up, but opens the door to real-time collaboration online.

    As you — and many others — have noted, what really counts is results. And if everybody I knew was spectacularly productive, I probably wouldn’t have that little voice whispering in my head “OMG I can’t believe they didn’t bring a laptop to this meeting”.

    But in every workplace I’ve ever been a part of, there is a huge range in both the quality and quantity of different people’s output. One of the most eye-opening discoveries I made in running my own business was that you can hire two different people, both of of whom are totally smart and great and do terrific work, and one may get twice as much done as the other in the course of a week.

    I won’t argue that the difference between these two groups is who takes notes on paper and who takes notes on a computer. But beyond innate talent, one thing that does appear to affect people’s output is the investment they have made in their personal capacity development — including thinking carefully about their workflow and productivity systems.

    As the comment thread on HBR suggests, there are certainly paper-only notetakers out there who have thought carefully about their workflow and arrived at paper as their preferred option after trying a bunch of approaches. But in my experience, most people who take paper notes have always taken paper notes: they’ve never really given digital note taking a try, often because their managers haven’t equipped them with the hardware or software to do so, and they are often unaware that options like Evernote or OneNote even exist. I literally can’t think of a single time when I’ve shown someone Evernote and had them say, “huh, I’d never want to take my notes like that.” But I’ve had dozens and dozens of conversations (and hundreds of tweets) from people who have said OH MY GOD WHERE HAS THIS BEEN ALL MY LIFE?!?!

    I don’t think I’m doing my colleagues any favours by seeing them file into meetings with paper notebooks, without suggesting that they might be more productive if they took notes digitally or recorded their tasks on their task lists in real time. And while I don’t make it a habit to begin meetings by excoriating the paper-users, I’ve certainly had plenty of occasion to ask folks to go back for their laptops so that we can collaborate in real-time on Etherpad or SubEthaEdit or MindMeister or Basecamp or any of the other tools that have been a core part of the workflow on various teams I’ve been a part of. For many of those folks, my digital prodding has changed their workflow, and those tools have become part of their toolkit.

    On a day-to-day level, I — like you — am part of many different kinds of meetings, including meetings in which neither digital nor paper note-taking would be appropriate. But for the many different meetings that include not only brainstorming but the generation of next actions, key messages or any other content that is going to live on and get shared, I’m really happy when I’m just one of many people in the room who are sharing the responsibility for capturing those actions and ideas in searchable, shareable form.

    1. A Reader

      I’ll never fully understand why folks seem to have this misguided notion that their limited personal experience is a substitute for empirical evidence and/or any kind of meaningful data. Moreover, why they think they can discern how the world must be for the rest of us based on how it is for them. The best I can come up with is simply an unbelievable amount of arrogance and sheer narcissism.

      Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Like the annual hoopla about the mobile payments industry taking off or all the hype behind every social media flavor of the month, this whole exercise in shilling for Moleskine is all smoke, no fire.

    2. Scott

      Thanks for the comment Alexandra.

      If your goal is to evangelize progress can you find a positive way to do it? It will be more effective than judging the very people you hope to convince.

      > But in every workplace I’ve ever been a part of

      You may be entirely right given those workplaces. But how well does your experience jive with the rest of the workplaces on planet earth? I have no idea what the answer is and I suspect you don’t either. This would be fine if your post offered any humility about what you might not know, but since you didn’t it made it very easy to reject your suggestions.

      1. Robert Wall

        This, right here. Thanks for the great post Scott, and this response above!

  19. Vicki

    Scott – Thanks for this.

    I use an electronic notebook for gathering and saving a LOT of information. But for meetings, I always bring a gel pen and a 1/4″ lined Mead Composition book. I handwrite _very fast_, taking near verbatim notes in meetings. I index the notebook (simple title and date for each meeting) and my mental SEO is quite good. If I need to transcribe /reduce notes to email / minutes, I also type very quickly (in the privacy of my cubicle were the typing sund doesn’t interrupt the meeting flow.)

    I especially liked your second sentence: “I judge coworkers on their results, not their tools. I recommend everyone does the same.” SOme of my co-workers look at me funny the first time they see me carry a paper notebook into a meeting. But after they get to know me, they realize that my notes are excellent and I can find anything I need to find with ease.

  20. Genevieve Howard

    These words hit home! I laughed at “If I worked with someone who used smoke signals and carrier pigeons but did better work than their fully upgraded neural implanted cyborg peers, I’d make sure they had all the firewood and bird feed they needed.”

    I use paper often in meetings or brainstorms because I appreciate the satisfying experience of putting pen to paper. With the flexibility to draw as well as write, I can organize and remember the ideas better with circles, lines or doodles. Later I add the distillation of my paper notes into my electronic world. Thanks for a well-written post!



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