As web workers we’re all equipped with computers and bandwidth and software galore. But despite these natural advantages, and the persistent myth of the paperless office, I don’t know anyone who has actually abandoned the technology of previous millenia entirely. Sometimes, paper is just too efficient, […]

As web workers we’re all equipped with computers and bandwidth and software galore. But despite these natural advantages, and the persistent myth of the paperless office, I don’t know anyone who has actually abandoned the technology of previous millenia entirely. Sometimes, paper is just too efficient, too user friendly, too easy to pass up. In my own life, it creeps in to many corners:

Quick notes: Sure, there are virtual sticky note programs everywhere, but I still keep a pad of the real physical sort and a pen on my desk, and they’re stuck to my monitor, my fridge, and probably my cat at any given time. Between zero-friction data entry and ambient in-my-face data availability, paper rules for this application.

Task List: I go back and forth on this one; I’ve been seduced into trying dozens of task list and GTD applications on various computers. But as we’ve written before, there are plenty of reasons for using paper to keep track of your planned activities. Sometimes the old reliable ways are the best.

Calendar: Another case where quick random access away from the computer can be key, though right at the moment I’m back to keeping mine on the computer. There are some mighty enticing paper calendars to be had, though.

Business Cards: Does anyone out there actually scan in paper business cards and convert them to some electronic format? I sure don’t. If you gave me a paper card, it’s sitting in a stack, sorted, with all the others. If I deal with you often enough I’ll eventually enter the information on the computer by hand, but for occasional contacts paper is plenty good.

High-Level Architecture: I don’t know how many programs I have around to do UML diagrams and ERD diagrams and wireframe UI mockups and the like. It really doesn’t matter. When I’m starting in on a new coding project, the first boxes and arrows and lines always appear on a big sheet of paper as I noodle around to figure out how the major pieces will fit together.

For me, in the end, it boils down to efficiency. Web work isn’t about using the web for everything. It’s about living in a faster-paced working world where I use the tools that help me get the job done as quickly as I can. When those tools are paper-based I might feel a bit sheepish, but I forge ahead anyhow. There aren’t any prizes for getting your whole world into the laptop.

What about you? What areas of your working life do you still use paper for, whether you feel guilty about it or not?

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. Tim Molendijk Thursday, June 21, 2007

    This is exactly what is use paper for too. No more, no less.

  2. Tim Molendijk Thursday, June 21, 2007

    (Correction of former comment: 2nd ‘is’ must be ‘I’.)

  3. Aaron B. Hockley Thursday, June 21, 2007

    My thoughts, in no particular order:

    I carry a PDA containing task list and calendar. If you’re going to lug around a paper version, you might as well lug around something with some brains.

    Most of my high level designs end up on a whiteboard initially. Not paper, but not electronic either.

    Business cards get info moved to my contact manager software and then recycled.

    My quick notes are paper. Yay for post-its.

  4. I use a low-end Palm for my calendar, contacts, “major task” to-do list, and long-lived notes (such as my “how-to” list). I also use it for quick notes in situations where I’m not near my desk. Data entry is high friction, but being able to stuff it into a pants pocket and have it everywhere I go makes up for that.

    For quick notes at my desk, more detailed to-do list breakdowns (sub-tasks of the major tasks in the PDA, one page per major task), and pretty much all design work, paper and pencils just get it done quicker than anything else I’ve tried, and as Mike said, it’s “in your face” so it’s kind of hard to forget what you’re meant to be working on.

  5. Something tells me that I’m the exception. Of course, I have a computer handy 100% of the time if I’m working – everything goes into one of two textfiles, one a diary, one a phonebook.

    If I need to take down a phone number or appointment, it usually goes on the back of one of the business cards in my wallet, to be transcribed later.

    Oddly, the one thing for which I routinely rely on paper is doing long arithmetic – it’s easier to check figures that have been written down.

    If I had an adequately powerful cellphone, I’d probably only use paper to do arithmetic.

    And no, I can’t really say why this works for me… but it does.

  6. No one else has said this here, so I will. (You can always delete the comment!)

    The other place that computers will never replace paper is in the toilet…

  7. I always keep a notepad around to jot things down. Writing something down on paper makes it stick in your mind. I just don’t get that same experience with typing. If I type something out, I often need to refer back to it. But it I write something down on paper, it sticks in my brain.

    I will also take my notepad and walk away from the computer to sit, think, and write. When I need to think things out, the colorful monitor inhibits my thoughts. It beckons me to take action – not think.

    Oh, and one more thing to add to your list. Toilet paper. I’d hate to see a paperless office restroom. BTW, if you think I’m kidding on this one, I’m not. I read a piece recently about a Japanese company that makes toilets with built-in bidets and dryers. Some environmental groups are advocating them. Sorry. No thanks.

  8. I use paper still for all of my notes during meetings and phone conversations. Maybe a tablet PC would change this, but right now I still often want the ability to draw a brief diagram of what I’m talking about to illustrate a point.

    I’m also in the process of writing a book and I find that using pen and ink can help words flow differently which is useful when I’m trying to add a plot twist.


  9. if i’m trying to wrap my head around some code, the first thing i do is write out pseudo-code on paper.
    i find that it allows me to flesh out an algorithm without worrying about syntax or digg/slashdot/wwd/lifehacker or anything else not directly related to solving the problem. it also allows me to catch any faults when i go to actually code it. i find pen and paper to be the best text editor i run.

  10. Pete Aldin mentioned that computers won’t replace paper in the toilet; however, I am living in Japan and we have done just that. Many homes have computerized toilet seats that will wash and dry your butt after you complete your business. (I am afraid to use them though, and still cling to paper.)

    My biggest use of paper right now is practicing writing Japanese characters. There are programs that allow you to write with a mouse or on a tablet with a stylus, but they are never as smooth as handwriting for practice.

Comments have been disabled for this post