photo of a hand written note

When to Ditch the Keyboard and Start Hand-writing

by sscheper on February 9, 2010

Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass through your fingertips

I have a question for you: Why did we even bother to learn handwriting and cursive if we rarely use it after elementary school?

Today, high schools are filled with laptops and gadgets. Handwritten essays are only assigned for in-class exams. It’s the teacher’s way of ensuring nobody cheats. It was also their burden to decipher the student’s handwriting. But to them, it was worth the risk of cheating.

No wonder people hate handwriting. The only time you have to do it is under the sweaty brow of a suspicious professor. And more, it takes you ages to complete. The way in which our teachers and professors employ hand-writing today is ridiculous. And more, it’s wrong.

Handwriting is obsolete in certain circumstances and helpful in others.

When not to hand-write:

  • When you’re writing two paragraphs or more.
  • When you’re writing a book

When to hand-write:

  • Reminders and quotes
  • To-do lists
  • Mapping out ideas, strategies or ventures
  • Reaching very important people

There’s just something special about writing by hand. It gives one that sense of speed. It gives freedom to draw in whatever pattern you want; to rapidly link together circles and ideas with arrows. It allows you to focus–as you’re completely immersed in the idea. There’s no email alert popping up in the background. Hand-writing helps the mind focus.

I. Reminders and quotes

When I was nineteen, I took up a habit of writing down bite-sized thoughts. I wrote quotes, lessons and ideas on note cards. As I read various books, I wrote down vocabulary that I didn’t understand. Every single day I reviewed these note cards. They served as reminders. Reviewing them was a great way to start the day. There was no distractions. Though my time invested in writing has crowded out this habit, I plan on re-awakening it soon. It’s a daily foundation exercise.

Repetition is the mother of skill.

There were actually quite a few notable figures that employ this technique–the technique of jotting down quick thoughts. Many of them recommend having something handy next to your nightstand:

I keep little notepads all over the place to write down ideas as soon as they strike, but the ones that fill up the quickest are always the ones at my nightstand. ~Emily Logan Decens

These little flashes of quotes, lessons or inspirations are perfect for hand-writing.

How to get in the habit of writing down quick thoughts:

  1. Invest in a pen. The money spent may help you feel obligated to use it. Here’s a site with interesting pens.
  2. Buy some note cards (3×5) and put them in your back pocket
  3. When you’ve written down thoughts or lessons, put them in a note card case (you can pick one up at Office Max or Staples)
  4. I separate them into three categories: a) vocabulary, b) life lessons, c) business strategy
  5. Review them first thing in the morning as part of the daily foundation

II. To-do lists

There’s no better feeling than scratching off an item from your to-do list. OK, maybe there is. But scratching out completed items feels sweet. I’ve tried different to-do lists; online, offline, through the phone. You name it, I’ve tried it. There’s innovative to-do list strategies out there like Todoodlist. This will give you an interesting take on to-do lists; however, what I’ve found to be the most important is keeping to-do lists simple.

A to-do list is a list of things to do. Write it down and do it, don’t over-think it otherwise you’ll get nothing done.

One of the secrets of getting more done is to make a TO DO List every day, keep it visible, and use it as a guide to action as you go through the day. — Jean de La Fontaine

What is crucial; however, is having your to-do list offline. To those that object, I feel your pain. I know it sucks to ditch your Remember The Milk, Google To-Do’s, or Jott. I’ve been through it. Those services are fine for building repositories of things you’d like to get done in the future, but for everyday actions, get an offline list. Why? Because your to-do list must be flexible and open. You need to circle items, draw connected arrows and scratch things out on the fly.

III. Mapping out ideas, strategies or ventures

Many of the biggest companies have massive deals written out on paper; Facebook, Google, Sun Microsystems; you name it, there’s likely a business plan or deal written on a napkin that drives services or products you use everyday.

Two people gather, bounce ideas around, counter objections, and then draw out terms on a napkin. You’ll rarely, if ever, see two people whipping out their iPhone and drawing through an app. Why? Because a pen and a napkin gets the job done. Again, don’t focus on capabilities, focus on essentials.

For this reason, I highly recommend companies to employ whiteboards within their teams. I’ve lived through a variety of startups, some suceeded, some failed. What was critical in the successful ones was the ability to communicate ideas. I’ve led various software movements and productivity systems (project management software, CRM’s, online chats, etc.); none of them came close to the very basic whiteboard. This was hard for me to swallow at first, because I wanted to bring a nifty piece of software to the table. Software that helped our team get more productive. But each tool I brought failed–they all had one thing in common: the whiteboard does the job just as well, if not better.

If you require data and notes from your whiteboard, programmer Stephen Furlani points out that there’s tools that give you this ability: mimio.

Stephen also notes that hand-writing within programming isn’t dead. In fact, it isn’t even close. With all of the electronic ways to map out ideas and use cases through software, nothing comes close to mapping out ideas by hand. Stephen writes, “I write it out in pseudocode on a notebook in front of me while I am examining the code, make the changes by hand, and then re-code the section on the computer. It aids greatly in understanding what the original code does, since most of it is usually undocumented, and how the fix interacts with the original code.”

Even if you’re a programmer, hand-writing still prevails.

IV. Reaching VIP’s

In an age of emoticons and LOL’s, you’ll stun people when you communicate via hand-written notes. It’ll take the reader back to their childhood. Hand-written notes are more intimate. The actual living ink is a reflection of time and work composing the letter. When reading an e-mail, one processes electronic text. What do we all complain about? Reading too much electronic text. “I’m so busy, I get xx emails per day. It’s crazy.” I’ve never met a person that’s said, “In my off-time I really enjoy sipping cappuccino’s and reading emails.” People hate email. Don’t add fuel to the fire. And more, if you do email someone, it’s likely it’ll sit next to the typical “Free Viagra” spam email.

I’ve never met a person that’s said, “In my off-time I really enjoy sipping cappuccino’s and reading emails.” People hate email. Don’t add fuel to the fire.

Bottom line: It’s a wise marketing tactic to reach people through hand-written notes. In our age of distraction, the most crowded channels are the newest ones: texting, emails and cell phones. The emptiest channels are the most intimate: hand-written notes.

Next action: I suggest adopting at least one of the four ways to use hand-writing above. Take a mental note of your thoughts and the results, and let me know your experiences in the comments below.


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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Nathaniel Broughton February 9, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Hand-written notes are extremely powerful in today’s world. They can build relationships in a personal manner that steps away from the clutter of digital messaging.

Want to show an employee or co-worker that you appreciate them? While a quick email is sufficient, imagine their reaction to a hand-written note that includes a personal message and signature.

In the same vein, striking up business relationships can actually be easier using a mailed letter instead of email. Sounds crazy right? If you’re attempting to get the attention of a person who is high in demand, who has grown immune to the barrage of emails from faceless contacts, try writing them a short letter.

In both instances, it humanizes the words and message and can create empathy with the receiver. It brings the ‘personal’ back into written communication.

Reply

Scott February 9, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Nate — Awesome comment, man. I dig it. Mind if I edit this chapter containing some of the info you wrote? I’ll be crediting you, of course.

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Josh Kayser February 9, 2010 at 5:12 pm

I think this serves as a great reminder to a lot of people the power of getting back to the basics. I’ve received a couple of hand written notes lately that all commanded my attention. In fact, the hand written address just on the envelope was enough to strike my curiosity. I need to do this more and plan to write a couple tomorrow.

You mentioned writing on note cards but the mini-composition notebooks (http://bit.ly/d48aQz) are also a great way to organize thoughts and ideas on the fly. They can withstand abuse and fit perfectly in a back pocket. It was something my grandfather always stressed and another habit I have let fall by the wayside to my iphone notepad I never use.

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Scott February 9, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Josh — Thanks for the comment. Appreciate it. Yea, definitely forgot about the mini-composition books. I’ll add that to the list. Those are great, as well as the mini moleskines. People live by those.

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Sandy Naidu February 10, 2010 at 11:13 am

Handwritten notes are extremely powerful – I usually don’t check all my mail straight away but if there is a hand written address in the envelope then I open it straight away (just out of curiosity).

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Scott February 10, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Haha — Good point, Sandy. I also forgot to mention the perfect use of hand-written notes: Valentines day.

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Nathaniel Broughton February 14, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Sorry for the late follow-up, Scott. Of course you can use it, happy to contribute in any way.

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Stephen Furlani February 15, 2010 at 7:25 am

As a software designer, most of my code is hand-written (at least designed) before it is typed.

Unfortunately as a child of the digital age, I prefer electronic communication to hand-written. It’s editable, and I can store & retrieve the communication much easier. But for impressing people, yeah, sending things hand-written or via snail-mail is still the best. It’s how I got one of my jobs – a cold call snail-mail letter actually got opened and read, and I was hired to do a job that they were only thinking about doing.

But I do completely agree that hand-writing things is much better and helps me focus. If I’m feeling cramped or crowded at work, I get out some scrap paper and plan out my day and week on paper. Then, since it’s out of my head (and not sitting vaguely in outlook somewhere), I can concentrate and follow it.

While looking for a replacement for my computer, I ran across the Courier. Have you seen this?
http://gizmodo.com/5365299/courier-first-details-of-microsofts-secret-tablet
http://gizmodo.com/5369493/leaked-courier-video-shows-how-well-actually-use-it
That, and not the god-awful iPad, is what I want out of a tablet PC.

-S!

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Scott February 15, 2010 at 8:05 am

That’s interesting that you write out most of your code before coding. I’ve never heard of that. Very interesting.

Even for writing these chapters, I map out my ideas on paper–not necessarily write everything out. But for structure purposes, hand-writing is hands-down the way to go.

I haven’t seen the Courier. That looks very interesting! Still, I prefer keeping things simple. A laptop already has enough capabilities and distractions where it’s hard to manage. Tablets could eventually compete with the laptop market; however, I think we’re at least five years away from that happening. When it does, though, I’ll consider picking one up instead of buying a new laptop. But there’s a lot of factors that will have to improve within tablets before I could envision making such a switch.

Thanks, Stephen. Appreciate the findings. Also, I may include your experience about hand-writing code. Could you elaborate on that more?

- S

Reply

Stephen Furlani February 16, 2010 at 9:02 am

Sure,

When I say that I hand-write code, I don’t mean that I write “for (int i = 0; i Paper where there’s no interface, no middle man made up of buttons, icons, mouse right-clicks, drags, GUI bugs, etc. to clutter up the mindspace that should instead be filled with ideas.

Oh, as an aside, if you like whiteboards, you should check out this little bit of tech – http://www.mimio.com/products/ink_capture_kit/index.asp
It’s a whiteboard that captures what you’re writing, but doesn’t add anything complex or clunky to the simple whiteboard.

Reply

Stephen Furlani February 16, 2010 at 9:04 am

(whoops – the last post got truncated by html)
Sure,

When I say that I hand-write code, I don’t mean that I write “for (int i = 0; i < n; i++) { f(i) = i*10; }" by hand, which would be laborious, but more often it is pseudocode or UML diagrams.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudocode
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unified_Modeling_Language

Most of my work is refactoring other people's code to fix bugs and add features, so what I do is probably not appropriate for most software engineers since they work mainly on pre-defined systems where this kind of work is done prior to writing the code. However, when digesting someone else's work, I write it out in pseudocode on a notebook in front of me while I am examining the code, make the changes by hand, and then re-code the section on the computer. It aids greatly in understand what the original code does, since most of it is usually undocumented, and how the fix interacts with the original code. If the code is multi-threaded or uses a complex design pattern (like a Traversal Distributed Visitor) then writing out the state and class diagrams by hand, as opposed to dropping them into a UML editor, is my preference mainly because the work is done Brain-Paper where there's no interface, no middle man made up of buttons, icons, mouse right-clicks, drags, GUI bugs, etc. to clutter up the mindspace that should instead be filled with ideas.

Oh, as an aside, if you like whiteboards, you should check out this little bit of tech – http://www.mimio.com/products/ink_capture_kit/index.asp
It's a whiteboard that captures what you're writing, but doesn't add anything complex or clunky to the simple whiteboard.

Reply

Scott February 16, 2010 at 10:08 am

Awesome find, Stephen. I’ll check out the whiteboard now and be sure to share the results here.

Also, I’ll be updating this chapter to include the reality that hand-writing can also be used by programmers.

Thanks again, Stephen!

Reply

Michael Hunger March 4, 2010 at 6:38 pm

When preparing a presentation I just take a A4 sheet and divide it into 9 parts, then I’ll just write down what I’ve got to say there. So withing say half and hour I can fill as many slides as I need to and then sort, correct and most importantly cross out any that is too much. Only afterwards I put the slides into Keynote or PowerPoint.
This way I don’t get lost with the tool and know exactly what I want to put in there and how.

You can make your own cheap electronic whiteboards using any surface (even a table) using a WII remote and a infrared pen. Just google/youtube for Lee WII remote whiteboard.

As pen I prefer a small pen with a metal tip, that never wears off
like the alpha / beta pens from Axel Weinbrecht

http://www.axelweinbrecht.de/en/Produkte/Schreiben_mit_Metall.html

Reply

Scott March 4, 2010 at 8:27 pm

That’s a fascinating method, Michael. Thank you so much for sharing. I really appreciate it. I’ll order one of those pens now and write about my experiences here. Thanks.

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Reply

Scott March 6, 2010 at 7:10 am

@mivanhoxcss — No problem. My pleasure. Please feel free to provide any feedback.

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glasnost March 19, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Well Done! I Like it!

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Scott April 27, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Thanks!

Reply

MooNWalker April 26, 2010 at 11:07 am

I’m a tech junkie, but on the first stages of the database development I drove to Office Depot just to buy whiteboard. It helped me a lot, without it my thoughts simply stalled. I use it to map out thoughts, ideas and basic structure of the application, as well as some task reminders. It didn’t cost much, yet since it’s hanging on the wall right next to me it’s inviting me to write on it each time I need to think thoroughly about something. Great tool. Tried notebooks but they didn’t work for me – tend to loose them.

Reply

Scott April 27, 2010 at 7:40 pm

MooNWalker — Yea, I’m a white-board fan. It’s easily the most underrated tool for project management and mapping out ideas. There’s too much credit lately given to online project management tools, and not enough cred given to white-boards! I’ve always been looking for an online project management tool that gave me the simplicity and freedom of a white-board, but I’m yet to find one. If you have any ideas or suggestions, let me know.

Reply

MooNWalker April 27, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Same here. Nothing beats the whiteboard yet. However, there is potential in networked tablets.

Reply

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