Bringing paper back: Write it down so you don’t forget.

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The future is here… and it’s paper. That’s right. Paper.

As an early adopter of technology, I was one of the first people I knew to us a PDA… a clumsy handheld device from HP that functioned like a primitive iPhone… without the phone part. I used them on and off for years back in the 90’s, taking notes on them, making appointments and to-do lists, and recording phone numbers and addresses.

But, ultimately, I went back to a paper calendar. In fact, I used a paper calendar which I carried in my back pocket until just a few years ago… and I’m thinking about going back. I’m also using more Post-It notes, scrap paper, printed books and Bibles, and lined notebooks than I’ve used in years.


Well, research has long told us that there is a significant connection between handwriting and brain activity. As far back as 2008, the research said that children and adults retain more new information when they form each letter with multiple strokes on paper rather than a single keystroke on a keyboard. Hmm…

And in 2010, researchers figured out why: the visual attention of the writer was so much more strongly focused than the attention of those typing that the brain engaged at a significantly higher level. Yup… it’s true.

Then, in 2014, another study took it a step farther, showing that students who took notes on paper during a college lecture retained the information longer and had better understanding of the concepts than those who took notes with a keyboard. It seems that the slower act of writing forced them to write down what they were hearing in their own words, which the faster typists did not have to do. Makes total sense.

So, as a guy who has a hard time focusing on anything for very long, I’ve taken cues from the research to improve my productivity, and sharpen my focus—in my work and in my spiritual life. Here’s how it helps me:

1. It helps me to focus my attention. Whether I’m reading a paper book (or Bible) and taking notes in the margin, or literally sketching out design ideas on scrap paper, my eyes stay pointed at the tip of my pencil, and I stay engaged longer.

Try going old school with your Bible reading and study. Pick up a Bible printed on paper with ink (they’re still available) and sit down with a highlighter and a pen (I know, really? It’s 2015!?). As you read, underline or highlight what’s important and write concepts in the margin in your own words. You’ll remember them longer, and understand them more clearly.

2. It helps me to think and ideate broadly. When I try to brainstorm in front of a computer, I get distracted with how to represent my ideas with the crude drawing tools available in most note-taking software. But with a pencil and a sheet of blank, unlined paper… there is nothing to slow me down.

Here’s a method for goal setting ripped from the pages of my graphic design classes in undergrad: Divide blank paper into two-inch squares and sketch or write an idea for a personal or spiritual goal in each box. Sketch every idea without hesitation, and try to come up with a hundred of them (work at a speed of two per minute). You don’t have to adopt all hundred as goals, but pick the one or two best ones and go after them. You will have better ideas, and actually own them by using this pencil and paper method.

3. It is a great memory and memorization aid. The stack of Post-It’s on my desk doesn’t have a chime or alert to remind me of things, but the simple act of writing it down helps cement it in my brain. I can often visualize what I wrote—even more so if I also sketch a picture—long after the scrap of paper is gone.

Do you remember when we were in middle school and the punishment for misbehavior or forgetting our homework was to write sentences on the board? You know… to write the same thing a hundred times on the chalk board. Our teachers had something there. The ideas was: you write something a hundred times, you’ll never forget it. It works.

Try it for memorizing scripture. It will work better to write it a hundred times and never look at it again than to write it once on your mirror and read it a hundred times. So, for today, skip the Bible memorization flash cards and try writing sentences (or scriptures) a hundred times before you go out for recess.


How are you using pen and paper to enhance your spiritual development or the spiritual growth of others?

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1 Response

  1. Erin says:

    Thank you for the real paper challenge! I often do find if I make a handwritten to do list I don’t need to refer back to it. What a great excuse for new office supplies.