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Note-taking vs todo apps

In recent years I’ve been guilty of testing several task managers and todo apps on my smartphone and on my computer. Wunderlist, Things, Trello; you name it, I used it. But something has changed one day, when I realised I don’t use them as much as I thought I would do.

In a sudden strike of epiphany I replaced task managers and todo apps with a simple blank notebook and a comfortable pen. Since then, I became noticeably better at tracking daily tasks, note-taking, recording brain dumps, and jotting down random ideas. I’m still crap at detailed sketching, but that’s a story for another time.

Through the following weeks I committed myself to using the notebook and pen alone to record my tasks and activities, from simple todos, taking notes at client meetings, to sketching wireframes for projects.

What I noticed over time was that I became less distracted with managing my tasks and notes, instead focusing on the work to be done and revising existing ideas later, not forgetting said ideas mid-way. Only when I realised that I can get more done in less amount of time during the day, I started paying attention to what has actually changed to provide that needed productivity boost.

There’s solid research behind why multitasking is bad for our productivity, and context switching is usually the main culprit here. In my personal experience, note-taking on paper doesn’t have the same impact on my brain’s need to switch context as does switching to a todo app, allowing me to retain focus without getting distracted.

Now, I do not have a degree in cognitive psychology and I’m unaware of any formal studies on comparing note-taking on paper to note-taking using software, but from my personal experience scribbling ideas on paper beats digital note-taking and todos hands down.

This might be because writing/scribbling is second nature to fully-developed humans and can happen nearly automatically. This reduces the need to divert our attention to the act of writing itself, allowing our brains to retain current context and move on without becoming distracted.

Using software consumes a lot of our cognitive power. It requires our brains to switch context in order to makes sense of the user interface, the text labels, input fields and actions required to add a task to our virtual lists. It really adds unnecessary complexity to a simple task of jotting down a line of text on a notepad.

I don’t believe that we should stop using todo apps or project management apps. This type of software has its genuine uses and was designed to help us better organise our evermore digital lives. These apps work well when you are coordinating a team-wide project, making a digital shopping list with your partner, or creating a shared list of places to visit next year.

Notice a pattern there yet?

Todo apps work great when used in a collaborative environment, but there’s a catch: you need to dedicate time and be thoughtful about your intentions to use them effectively. For everything else, including your agendas, note-taking, or personal tasks a notebook and a comfortable pen will suffice. Less distractions means you can do more in less time, passing that benefit to your clients, spouses, kids, or that hot new Netlifx show that popped up last night.

Had a different experience with todo apps or note-taking using pen and paper? HMU on Twitter and share your story!