Note taking is as ancient an art as any. There are hefty tomes on the subject of how to best capture and organize information in a swift and legible manner and courses devoted to the subject in colleges.

And yet, the most popular suggestion in our Skribit widget , which you can use to suggest articles for Lifehack authors to write, is on the question of whether to use digital or traditional methods of note taking. It seems that the mountains of existent information haven’t yet caught up with the modern age, addressing traditional note-taking methods, but altogether bypassing digital note-taking technologies and techniques and assistance in deciding which method of note-taking is best for the individual.

What do we want to take notes for?

There are all sorts of reasons to take notes, and it’s important to first look to these reasons in deciding which particular method of note-taking is best for us in the modern age. Different note taking needs demand different note taking methods and the importance of each of these needs to each of us differs drastically. University students and freelance writers both tend to take notes for different reasons.

What might you need to take notes for? Here’s a few I thought of (feel free to add your own in the comments):

  • Ubiquitous capture—a note taking system to help you capture ideas, thoughts and important information any time, any where. Note taking to ensure you never forget.
  • Retaining information from lectures and seminars—you can’t take a lecture home like you can a book, but taking notes helps to offset the temporary nature of verbally delivered information.
  • Problem solving—note taking as a method of sorting out the flighty thoughts in your head with a more tactile medium.
  • Visualization—visualizing complex systems and concepts with the help of diagrams and sketches.

While I’m sure I haven’t covered every conceivable reason to take notes, these are the things that come to mind as the most important, popular and common reasons for note taking.

Digital methods of note taking

Digital methods of note taking have grown in popularity over the last few years in particular. Applications like Evernote and OneNote have risen in popularity, with the former receiving enthusiastic reviews from many sites including this one and supporting many devices, including the iPhone. This makes it an excellent choice when it comes to ubiquitous capture.

The ubiquity of cloud-supported, multi-platform applications is not the only advantage to digital note taking. Your notes become indexable and searchable, which is infinitely useful in itself. And I don’t know about you, but I can type way faster than I can write with a pen—that’s either a product of the age we live in or the product of working as a writer who pumps out thousands of words on my keyboard each day, I don’t know. But I’m guessing that most of you reading can type faster than you can write, too.

Also, as users of Evernote on the iPhone will know best, dropping photos of whiteboards, business cards, presenter’s slides and the like into your notes is superbly easy—with traditional methods, you have to write out every bit of info you want to keep.

But digital note taking methods fall down in a few important areas; drawing diagrams, sketches and mind maps is usually impossible and where it is possible, by no means a pleasant experience. Feel free to drop me a link to an app that makes this sort of thing enjoyable, but I don’t believe such a thing exists. The obvious exception: tablet PCs. But nobody really wants to buy a computer that can take notes better than a laptop and do little else quite as well.

Any sort of visualization is limited when it comes to digital note taking, and not just when it comes to diagrams, but the ability to fashion text in any format not based on the paragraph.

Let’s go back to the list of reasons for note taking and see how digital note taking does:

  • Ubiquitous capture—digital is a winner when it comes to ubiquity, though you’ll need a few fancy—and often expensive—devices to make that ubiquity true.
  • Retaining information from lectures—digital wins here. Most people can keep up with the presenter far more quickly with a laptop than with pen and paper.
  • Problem solving—sort of. Problem solving often requires non-linear thought, and thus non-linear expression, but you can still flesh an idea out in paragraph or bullet form.
  • Visualization—not really; you need specialist, expensive equipment such as a tablet PC or even a graphic artist’s tablet to make visualization as a function of note taking work.

Traditional methods of note taking

The good old pen and paper has served humanity well for… well, a damn long time. Go back a bit further and you’ve got papyrus, wax, chiseled stone and all sorts of things. The reason most note taking literature panders to such methods is simply that such methods have existed for a long time. Nobody brought a laptop to take notes in a lecture ten years ago.

And while it can be slow, unless you learn skills such as shorthand usually only learned by journalists and professional note takers, and can’t be searched or snap an image in between blocks of text (without going home and printing one out and taping it in, which sort of defeats the purpose), it is flexible. You’ve got a blank sheet of paper before you, and you can mark it however you wish.

You can format text in strange and unusual ways, including the famous Cornell method of note taking, diagram, sketch and visualize in any manner you wish without obstructing. Many fans of paper-based note taking call it liberating, and not without reason. This is why the Moleskine has become an icon of frappucino-sipping hipster culture; those guys hate to be restricted.

There’s one other reason many people love taking their notes on paper. It’s never mentioned in a practical context, but I think it’s an important point to make. It’s tactile. Some people feel they can connect with their words more easily than they can with text on a screen when they create those words with a pen. And if that helps you process information, that’s great.

How do traditional methods of note taking line up with our list of reasons to take notes?

  • Ubiquitous capture—there’s no reason you can’t take a notebook with you everywhere, but there’s no denying that ubiquitous capture is far more easily achieved with digital methods (unless the idea to be captured is visual in nature). Packing a phone in your pocket is easy, taking a laptop everywhere is second nature for many, but lugging around a pen and pad isn’t always desirable.
  • Retaining information from lectures—if you can write quickly, write shorthand, or you’re good at really truncating information on the fly so you can get it down before the lecturer moves on, note taking in lectures is totally doable with pen and paper. But I wouldn’t do it; my hand would cramp up long before I caught up with what the speaker was going on about.
  • Problem solving—you’ve got free control of the page which is always helpful when it comes to non-linear thinking; map it out however you like. Writing with a pen also forces you to slow down a bit more, which is much better for processing information and coming up with ideas than the fast-paced world of typing. Paper wins when it comes to problem solving.
  • Visualization—digital note taking just can’t match pen and paper for visualizing concepts, whether it’s a diagram or sketch, or a good old mind map. Maybe one day things will change in this department, but it’s a clear win for paper.

The verdict?

The verdict is up to you.

Note taking is one of those things where the best course of action is totally dependent on what you need to do. Do you need to sketch ideas for your graphic design job? Go paper. Do you need to keep track of shopping lists, things you’ve got to do tomorrow and ideas for articles? Go digital. Need the benefits of both? Then go with both.

The pros and cons are lined up in a row for you here—the decision, I hope, is much easier than it was before!

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