Illustration by Fanny Luor

Virtual First

The magic of my analog notebook in a world of virtual work


Published on October 04, 2021

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You know how you can check how often you pick up your phone each week? And the number is always staggeringly high—much higher than you’d like to admit? Sometimes I wonder what those stats would look like for my beloved paper notebooks. I have a rotating cast of colorful, hardcover Leuchtturms I fill throughout the year with to-do lists, notes, and story ideas. I treat my notebook’s dotted pages as a dumping ground for whatever urgent, anxious thoughts are rattling around my brain each day. I do this frequently and instinctively. In the pantheon of objects I reach for most repeatedly, my notebook is probably second only to my phone.

Spending as much time as I do scribbling on paper might sound a bit counterproductive if your job involves basking in the glow of a computer screen for hours at a time. I could easily store all of that written information in apps and digital files, after all. But what I’ve come to realize is that working remotely or virtually doesn’t mean all your tools have to be digital, too—and in fact, writing things down is how some people process, filter, and organize information best.

“I think especially because everything is so digital nowadays, I do find some comfort and structure almost in something that's analog,” says Amanda Rach Lee, a YouTuber who makes videos about journaling, productivity, drawing, and daily life for her more than two million subscribers, and also runs her own stationery business. “I don't know what it is, but for me, I think that act—just like the act of actually writing something down—kind of makes it seep into my brain a little bit deeper, and helps me organize things when I can visually map it out in front of me.” 

I feel the same as Lee—and it turns out there’s some science to back this feeling up. Some researchers have found that students were able to process and retain information better when writing versus typing—in part because writing forced students to actually process information as they received it, summarizing and contextualizing as necessary, rather than the more verbatim transcription we tend to do when typing. Others have suggested that both the mechanical and sensory demands of writing versus typing could also affect how we learn. 

But especially during the pandemic, I’ve wondered what else might explain why I reach for my notebook so much. “I've got that habit too,” Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, told me. “I've got pads all over the place right now that I’ve written on. I think it's an attempt to get some of that negative space back.”

Attention residue in a world full of Zoom

Before the pandemic, many of us had these gaps in our workday—the five minutes it took to move between meeting rooms, or the serendipitous lunch breaks with colleagues. Even as a longtime freelancer, I would break up my days with walks for coffee or changes of scenery, using time otherwise spent working to transport myself to libraries and far-off co-working spaces. Joordens likens these gaps in the workday to the negative spaces inside buildings—the elevator shafts and electricity conduits, the things we don’t generally pay attention to. “But they're critical to the running of the building. They serve a very important function, even though they're seemingly invisible,” Joordens says. And “right now, it seems to be my negative spaces are gone. I shut down one meeting. I open up the next meeting. And I've had very little time to really digest.”

“Our brains cannot fully multitask. We think we're doing two things at the same time. But in fact, we're constantly switching back and forth."

Having that time to digest, or consolidate information into memories we’ll remember, is important. Joordens’s hunch is that writing, for people like me, might be acting as a kind of substitute for the negative space we’ve lost—an opportunity I’ve created in between meetings or tasks for my brain to process and organize all of the data coming at me each day. Maybe, then, writing is my antidote for Zoom fatigue. Maybe, in a deluge of digital information, it’s my attempt to hold onto as much as I can.

Or maybe, as Sophie Leroy explains to me, writing is my way of grappling with all the little disruptions of modern work. “Our brains cannot fully multitask,” says Leroy, an associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell’s School of Business who studies attention and the effects of interruptions on our ability to do focused work. “We think we're doing two things at the same time. But in fact, we're constantly switching back and forth between two interfaces, two tasks, two people.” Leroy refers to the performance impact of all these demands on our attention as “attention residue,” which can affect our ability to fully focus on a specific task.

In virtual work environments especially, people are constantly switching between windows, apps, and digital tasks, all of which compete for our attention. But “when you are alone with a notebook, there are also no distractions,” Leroy says. And it’s not so much the paper itself that lets you achieve a greater level of focus, but rather, “you're just disconnected.” Though she doesn’t have data to support this, Leroy suspects “it's kind of sending that clue to your brain: ‘Okay, time to switch, and time to move on to next thing.’”

This, too, is an important signal. Leroy's research has found that the brain has a really hard time setting aside all of the things competing for our attention, and needs help to successfully move from one thing to the next. This is where “a more significant transition” can help. For example, have you ever noticed how it’s harder to reset your focus when two consecutive meetings are held in the same meeting room? “I'm going to have more attention residue,” Leroy says. Whereas “if I have to walk to another room for another meeting, I have time to process and environmental cues that tell me now I need to switch my attention.” For me, Leroy suggested my notebook could be a similar kind of contextual cue.

From digital to analog and back again

Ironically, much of what I write in my notebooks eventually ends up back on my computer. Sometimes I manually transcribe my notes into digital form for easier recall. Or when I have a lot to ingest and my writing isn’t too messy, I take photos of my pages and automate the process with apps that can turn images into text. This might seem counterintuitive; again, why not just write digitally in the first place? But, much like researchers found when comparing the note-taking methods of those who write instead of type, I know that whatever I’ve written down has likely been filtered, cold-pressed, into the very essence of whatever it is I need to know or remember—the outcome of a meeting, the most important things a person said to me in a conversation, the things I need to follow-up on most urgently, the ideas I care about most.

"[There's] a little bit of a sentimental, almost beautiful aspect of seeing your life in every single page."

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I need to have this one planning system, either online or digital.’ But you can mix the two,” says Lee, the YouTuber, who uses an offline bullet journal for personal planning, and online collaboration tools for when she needs to make plans with her business team. Information can flow between the analog and digital realms as needed. “Planning, for me, is kind of a good way to mix the two,” says Lee, because “you can process all the information you receive from the digital end, and put it down on a piece of paper.”

Joordens also points out that, sometimes, the point of writing isn’t to have a physical record, but merely to help with consolidation, or the process of memory-making. Both Joordens and I noticed there are times when we never actually revisit the notes we take during meetings or phone calls, yet the act of writing seems to help us remember and make sense of what we’ve learned. 

Other times, having that physical record is the point. The stack of notebooks and journals I’ve kept possess a weight, a feeling of permanence, that my digital files lack. There’s something transportive, sometimes nostalgic, even magical about reading notes from years gone by. And like a time capsule, says Lee, there’s “a little bit of a sentimental, almost beautiful aspect of seeing your life in every single page.”