To Fix Your Brain, Try Paper

A year ago a friend was telling me about this system she was doing called Bullet Journaling. The key feature is, for any task you want to keep, you need to copy it manually. If you’re not really going to do it, that’s fine, just admit it and scratch it off. Adding a cost to keeping junk on the list pushes you to cull it.

A few months later Quartz covered it and it became an Internet phenomenon. The world is weird like that.

While I endorse neither notebook Pinterests (this is an actual thing) nor productivity cults1, I think there’s a reason this idea keeps coming up.

Our digital tools are out of control.

Several years ago I was at a bank when my phone starting buzzing with IRC notifications. There was something wrong with the latest deployment, and the developers in the office were trying to pin it down. The bankteller—a 20-something with an iPhone—was aghast. And I was like, yeah, this is developer land.

Her horror, of course, wasn’t that I was momentarily distracted, but a sort of prescient realization that this was the future:

So many tabs that you can’t read their labels2. Infinite email. Constant Slack notifications. It is literally impossible for a person to keep up with this in real time and still get anything done. The logical conclusion is what Andrew Sullivan calls distraction sickness.

This isn’t the myth of Facebook-addicted-millennials: it’s the mechanics of the Noise Machine™ invading your work and personal lives, and dialing up the volume until even the people who could handle yesteryear’s multitasking, myself included, are slamming on the breaks.

What we’re seeing is the broad recognition that all these busy screens are breaking our brains. Paper is the rebellion.

2.

Don’t get me wrong. When I was in college, classes were inundated by study after study proving that handwritten notes were better. Laptops were distractions, handwriting improved memory, and that one dude in front of you in Philosophy 1040 was playing Super Mario the whole time.

And the laptops stayed out anyway. The problem with the research was it misunderstood what my notes were for. If the end goal was engagement, sure, paper was better. If the notes themselves were a tool—something that enabled you to review an entire course in an afternoon or search for specific facts while writing a paper, digital was better.

This isn’t a new idea. “Use the right tool for the job” is cliché in software development. But in this case its not a meaningless slogan: it’s a question.

3.

Paper is hard to search. Hard to share. Easy to misinterpret—countless deaths have been directly attributed to doctors’ handwriting.

But it’s easy to focus on. It doesn’t buzz or ding. It doesn’t turn your eyes red and it takes advantage of your brain’s innate sense of physical space in a way that most digital interfaces fail to. It forms a record, but not a very accessible one.

And that may be the key. Just picking and old-fashioned tool some of the time forces you to give you attention periodic breaks, not unlike the way urban planners try to design neighborhoods that promote walking.

For me, what I discovered is I have two sets of notes:

  1. Short term content that served as an extension of working memory: stuff to do, people to talk to, anything I shouldn’t forget but doesn’t need to exist two weeks later.
  2. The long term content, which aren’t notes; they’re documentation. They should be searchable and stored separately.

Both could easily live in an app. The former doesn’t actually need to. And you know, a year later, I really enjoy having a tool that isn’t yet another busy screen.

4.

Of course, this is all just damage control. If you want to wrangle this nonsense before the next generation etches it into normalcy, it’s up to developers and power users to bring the hammer down.

And that means the technology needs to be fixed. Luddites never win. You can’t burn the cotton mills to ash and assume that’s that3.

And it seems to be coming. I do all my writing in Ulysses, a minimalist distraction-free markdown editor. My Kindle is great and doesn’t have all these problems4. Newsletters are a promising alternative to checking social all the time. Google Inbox tried to get email under control (I personally don’t like it, but trying is good). Time Well Spent is gaining attention. I know more and more people who have disabled all notifications on their phones.

So what’s missing?

Where do we go from here?


  1. Against Productivity is an excellent read and closely related to the topic at hand. 

  2. Quicktabs is good for this. Also, closing things. 

  3. Yes, the original luddites were angry textile workers. And as usual, it wasn’t the technology they hated, but how it was being applied to their detriment. 

  4. The cognitive research on reading screens vs paper is interesting, but at least to me, eReaders actually are an immersive, undistracted experience.