There’s something special about a fresh sheet of paper and nice pen. Kate Matsudaira’s hunt for the perfect notebook led her to create her own. As she smashed her Kickstarter goal, it was clear she’d struck a nerve: paper will always have a place in the world of digital.
By Kate Matsudaira
When it comes to goal setting and planning, I love to use paper instead of a digital device. Perhaps it’s because writing it down on paper makes it seem more concrete, spurring me into action? Or maybe it’s because it’s harder to cut and paste, so things seem a little more permanent – forcing me to really think about what I write. But regardless of the reasons, I think success and paper notes go hand in hand.
Throughout my whole career as a software engineer to tech executive and CEO, I have survived on good note taking. I take my notes seriously, and in return, they help me be taken more seriously. Good notes make me more successful, more organised and more amazing at my job.
Because I work in technology, you might think I’d prefer taking notes digitally. After all, I create digital solutions for a living. But in fact, I prefer good old-fashioned paper and pencil.
It’s not that a digital app couldn’t be created to meet my needs (I’m actually a big fan of Evernote), but I feel as though I lose something when my thoughts are funneled directly into a word processor. I feel less connected to my ideas. Paper allows me to flush out my thoughts – however messy they might be – expand, and make broad connections. I can draw them out, cross them out, crumple them up, and take them everywhere.
Not only is paper more versatile, but it keeps me focused on the project at hand. Digital tools make it harder to stay focused and to connect with other people. Laptops and tablets may be becoming more acceptable in the boardroom, but there’s always the sneaking suspicion that the note-taker is answering email instead of paying attention. Frankly, it’s a little rude and a lot distracting. But taking notes by hand shows respect. It’s a very clear way to let the speaker know that you find what he or she has to say valuable.
Paper notes also allow you to think through ideas more thoroughly. Psychology researchers Mueller and Oppenheimer compared levels of comprehension demonstrated by digital and paper note-takers. Although students who took notes digitally were able to capture more information, they were consistently outperformed by the paper note-takers on measures of conceptual and applied understanding.
The researchers suggested that taking notes by hand forces the brain to slow down and engage in some heavy “mental lifting”. Instead of transcribing notes verbatim, the paper note-taker needs to actively listen and summarise information. This cognitive processing instills more meaning into key phrases, triggering memory. Digital note-taking doesn’t use the same amount of mental energy.
The birth of Spark
But paper notes can have their disadvantages too. Sticky notes and unorganised to-do lists might help me remember something I need to get done, but they get in the way of doing deep, thoughtful work that makes a difference. For this kind of work, I need an organised system for planning my days and weeks out in advance. Using my previous yearly, monthly and weekly goals to prioritise, I block chunks of time for focused activity.
I call this process time-blocking, and it was one of the big reasons I decided to create the Spark Notebook. I wanted a single tool that could combine the elements of a beautiful notebook and a great planner – something with wonderful productivity techniques built in for setting goals or capturing big ideas, but also versatile in design for planning monthly, weekly and daily schedules that fluctuate.
Most of the planners I’d tried before did one function really well, but couldn’t meet all of my needs. Notebooks with goal-planners, journaling pages and organisation systems were bright pink and looked like a scrapbook (or something akin to the paper version of Windows 95). The sleek, modern notebooks I found lacked all functionality and served only as appointment books or calendars. They were simply a collection of the same lined pages over and over again, leaving me no system for differentiating simple to-do items from laser-focused work sessions, product research from yearly goals.
And so I decided to stop searching and starting building it: the perfect notebook.
In November 2014, I launched a Kickstarter project with the hope that I could produce enough notebooks to break even on the sizable cost of printing. My goal was to raise $14,000; by the end of the campaign, I had raised $138,572. I knew I had struck a nerve.
Why was this project so successful? Despite the huge leaps made in technology, I believe that people still crave that pen-to-paper process, which is so crucial for focusing attention and processing information. By taking the time to plan out your schedule by hand – reflecting on the previous week and thinking through the next – you actually gain more productive hours than if you were to automate your tasks and appointments. Allocating your time smartly helps you avoid getting sucked into the tedious tasks that don’t actually accomplish much. It forces you to focus on your top priorities for an amount of time that reflects their importance.
Sharing this project has been a wonderful reminder of how the best work isn’t the fastest work. That, to me, is why paper will always stay relevant in this digital world.