Is it pointless to take handwritten notes?

Handwriting long served the human race as a way to externalize ideas, spread knowledge, and build on the knowledge of our ancestors. After thousands of years of inscribing on clay tablets, painting on cave walls, and scratching quills to parchment, the time may be soon when we trade our pens for pixels.

Our ability to access human knowledge is at an all-time high thanks to the internet and computers. Think of how much knowledge the average peasant was able to access in medieval Europe versus the 24/7 constant flood of information available on the internet today.

Traditional note-taking usually took the form of the ‘commonplace book.’ Artists and intellectuals recorded ideas, observations, and notes from other books. Still, the knowledge and insights gathered by these privileged individuals weren’t easily accessible to the masses.

Today, we have the opposite problem - too much information. To the point that most of us have to work hard just to focus our attention and separate the signal from the noise. 

Think about the last time you had to make a purchase - like a home appliance, an insurance policy, or a fountain pen. Many of you spent more time than you would like to admit on research. So many struggle with an overload of information that there’s a term for it: analysis paralysis.

Now that we have an abundance of information at our fingertips, would the old-school strategy of taking handwritten notes still be effective in building useful knowledge?

The key, I believe, is changing our relationship to information. Instead of being passive consumers of data, we need to actively engage with it, break it down, and make it useful.

The concept of “disfluency,” as introduced to me in Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter Faster Better, helps make the best use of our resources to build knowledge. The best part is, handwriting is an essential tool in this process.

In his book, Duhigg shares a study published in 2014, where researchers from Princeton and UCLA looked at the differences between students who took lecture notes by hand versus those who used laptops. Although the students transcribing the lecture with their laptops collected more notes than their handwriting peers, they did not retain the information as well. “Put differently,” Duhigg says, “writing is more disfluent than typing, because it requires more labor and captures fewer verbatim phrases.”

Even if you have a collection of notes in the digital realm, writing can still help process the information you collected. “When you express an idea in writing,” says Tiago Forte, author of Building a Second Brain, “it's not just a matter of transferring the exact contents of your mind into paper or digital form. Writing creates new knowledge that wasn't there before. Each word you write triggers mental cascades and internal associations, leading to further ideas, all of which can come tumbling out onto the page or screen.”

Let’s say you have transcribed audio from a lecture. To pull the most important, actionable information from the lecture, bold the main points, highlight what resonates with you, and then write an executive summary (like a TL;DR:) at the top of your notes. This is a key element of synthesizing your notes that Forte describes in his book.

Or, you could do all of your notes old school. Bestselling author Ryan Holiday uses a box full of index cards with organized notes containing all the elements that he uses to build his books.

This would also be possible with the BulletJournal system since you could use the index to organize the contents of your modern commonplace journal.

The advantage of digital is the powerful search feature that a “Notes App” employs to quickly find a relevant piece of information by keyword. Instead of having to search through journal indexes or notecards, a quick type of the keyboard will direct you to the exact piece of information you need.

However, the more that I learn about new apps and technologies to help with building knowledge and executing creatively, the more I’m convinced that a hybrid approach is the most beneficial. AI doesn’t have all the answers. Not yet. But, we shouldn’t sleep on how it can multiply our efforts and make us more effective in our pursuit of more knowledge.

So, if you still pride yourself in keeping handwritten notes, know that it is still a winning strategy for learning effectively!