My way or the high way.


Alexandra Samuel wrote a piece on notetaking. It was quite breathtaking. It opened as follows:

I knew right away, when you walked in here with a paper notebook — a paper notebook! — I realized that this meeting was not going to be a good use of our time.

It caused what might best be described as a shitstorm, and seems to have topped out at 304 comments, the overwhelming majority of which were not in favour of the piece. She then wrote a piece about the reaction here where again, the majority of comments gently pointed out that a look in the mirror to remove the plank from her eye might be in order before criticising much of what was said to her.

I have a lot of problems with the piece, the key one being, anyone who meets other people with that sort of attitude; the attitude that her way with her digital gadgets and toys was better than anyone else’s way of organising aide memoires. The simple truth is, it probably isn’t. Certainly, it’s not straight forward that all the digital productive tools in the world make you more productive. What – in my experience – tends to make you more productive is not feeling you have to justify every single little way of doing things.

I own a laptop, a tablet and a smartphone. The laptop runs Windows, the rest is iOS. I also have a lot of notebooks not because they make me less productive but because they cause me to be more productive. Basic day to day list? It’s faster to write it down and tick it off. Mindmapping? Quicker to pull out software. Reflecting on life in general? I’ve kept a journal since I was 19 years old. There’s something inherently more valuable about it than files which go missing and get corrupt.

There is a common view that previous generations before us will have left more of a footprint via their books and their monuments than we will. We may generally produce a huge amount more information than the generations before us, but we do not do very much to retain it. Already, data saved in the 1950s and 1960s is getting harder and impossible to retrieve because we just don’t have the technology. Our technology cycles are changing and information is dying, in some respects, faster than it did 100 years ago.

Important things to me, my life, and my feelings, go in notebooks.

What worried me most about the whole piece was not so much the massively condescending piece as it was published originally although I really do have to say that it came across as childish and condescending, but the overwhelming lack of understanding why she might not be right. This came across in her replies to comments across the piece. For example, she really doesn’t get that a lot of companies for legal and regulatory reasons just are not allowed to use services like Evernote. It’s not a question of a manager being an old fogey that she can write to and point out the errors of their ways so that a bunch of people wind up with laptops and iPads.

As it happens, I don’t think that laptops and iPads enhance listening. My experience is that people who are typing are not processing information at all. I’m a very fast typist – I typically averaged 120wpm in English in my admin days. Alone of all my colleagues, I could type from live dictation. This means that as fast as you spoke, I typed. And as a special trick, I could type in English what you said to me in French.

For a good typist, the iPad keyboard is basically unworkable. Typing things puts a constraint on how you describe unstructured data. Most meetings consist of unstructured data; they consist of brainstorming, problem solving.

Being honest, were I to walk into a meeting with someone like Alexandra, weighed down by her laptop and her iPad, I’d wonder if she really had any interest in the meeting at all. Oh it’s not because I think she’ll be checking her email or her twitter or her Facebook while I’m describing whatever problem we are here to resolve. It’s because I know that people who are typing are not absorbing. This is why, perhaps, Alexandra needs the crutch of search and retrieval of her digital tools. People who remember more get more done.

I think Alexandra, in stating that you don’t have to remember things because it’s all in Evernote, has missed that minor detail.

I should note she has a book on Evernote as a tool available at the moment.