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43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

The Backs of Envelopes are Blank for a Reason

I wanted to piggyback off Merlin's post about paper yesterday because, A) I thought it was spot-on, and B) he scooped about 90% of what I wanted to write today. Nonetheless, he nailed something that sent me into a tizzy of note scribbling and bedtime brainstorming, about paper's sweet spot:

Still, for thinking, capture, and live collaboration, paper is one of the best friends you’ll ever have. And as long as we use it properly, it’s going to continue to enhance the creation of all downstream media.

This struck such a nerve because lately, I've become increasingly aware of how paper plays that role in my work. Like I said before, I'm the last person you should be listening to for advice on personal systems, but no matter what shape or form of digital doodads I'm using to hold my stuff, I always have some paper handy when I really want to get busy. Lately, it's been a Moleskine notebook, but it could be index cards, Post-It notes, or some good old fashioned college-ruled; it doesn't matter. My best work always comes out of sitting in front of the word processor with a pen and paper right next to me, ready for brainstorming, ad hoc project planning, and straight-up doodling.

Sit down at Grandpa Wood-Tang's knee and let me tell you a story. Back when I had a real job, I worked on a project where I got to visit a number of clients overseas. Before I left on my first trip, my manager handed me a Boorum & Pease notebook with a Gordon Gekko-tastic, faux-cordovan binding and said, "Here, I don't want you looking like an asshole carrying some cheap legal pad around the world." I carried that notebook for the entire project to six different countries, and I still have it today. I can leaf through it now and recall specific meetings, conversations, and arcane details about the project that never would have stuck in my brain had I taken all those notes in some neutered software outliner or mind mapper.

The reasons that notebook feels like an old friend are probably familiar to long-time 43 Folders readers: the tactile experience, the creative, actively engaged act of taking notes by hand. But it's become the psychological artifact that it is because it captured my mind as it was working when I used it, not hours later when I copied my thoughts into a status memo, or even seconds later as I tried to translate brainwaves into keystrokes. The underlines, the bolded, twice-drawn letters, the double-back arrows and squished-in elaborations are still there, documenting my thought process in all its flawed, hungover 24-year-old consultant glory, with no tags, metadata, or other digital nonsense weighing it down. I turned in some of the best work of my career on that project, because I was able to work off my slick little notebook and its recurring backups of my brain.

All that information eventually made its way into permanent, digital storage in the form of the various design documents I produced, but they would have been useless boilerplate without that notebook. I'm as computer-centric as they come. I shunt every communication I can through the internet tubes and save every piece of digital flotsam and jetsam that floats my way on my hard drive. But I'm never without a piece of paper like that notebook to use as a mental scratch disk.

At the risk of sounding like some dreamy New Ager, my point in spinning that yarn is that sometimes we just need to let it go, man, and let our brains do what they will. Paper is the perfect place to do that, and if you're really rolling, for Pete's sake, don't stop to inbox-it, process-it, tag-it, and contextualize-it into some whizbang piece of software (or some formal paper system, for that matter). Save that shit for later, when the dust has settled, the bandits have fled, and you see how many horses are left to feed.

bjabernethy's picture

Paper has its place . . .

Nothing beats paper for a good brainstorming session.

Nothing beats paper for jotting down thoughts on the go.

And nothing beats paper for overall ease of use.

Initially, that is.

The trick is in not ending up with a scattered assemblage of nonsensical crap — random, undated, and poorly written snippets of information that made perfect sense only at the time of creation.

I love paper, as long as it's bound and I willfully restrict my access to it. One Moleskine and one legal pad can be in my world at a time. As soon as I start writing on stickies, business cards, receipts, and the like, I'm screwed.




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