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Bring Back the Paper Planner

Phones offer convenience, but what do we lose when we’re digital only?


As of 2018, 77 percent of Americans own smartphones. Most — if not all — of these devices come pre-loaded with apps meant for organizing and planning: one for notes, one for setting reminders, a calendar app and more. Beyond that, hundreds of additional apps are available for everything from creating grocery lists to syncing schedules.

But if Americans truly do spend nearly half of their day looking at a screen, wouldn’t it be nice to give our eyes a break and pick up a pen and paper?

Writer Kristin Wong made this case recently in a New York Times piece, The Case for Using a Paper Planner. She wrote that while in college, she used a physical planner for nearly everything; she now uses apps on her phone for all the lists, due dates and notes-to-self that once lived on paper.

“While apps are convenient and fun to use, there was something satisfying about checking in with this planner every day,” Wong wrote. “Aside from the nostalgia factor, writing by hand forces you to slow down and approach your planning with more mindfulness.”

Much to Gain With a Paper Planner

Wong pointed to research showing that writing things down by hand helps us generate ideas and retain information better. And those aren’t the only benefits of switching (or switching back) to paper planning.

Writer Michael Grothaus challenged himself to give up planning apps and use a weekly paper planner for two weeks and documented it for Fast Company. He discovered that with the paper planner, he took notes with greater detail than he would have in the Notes app.

“I didn’t set out to do this, but once I began to scribble a note for a meeting by hand, I found more ideas relevant to the meeting or subject at hand popping into my head,” said Grothaus.

There’s something about connecting your brain with your body through the physical action of thinking while writing that makes us focus more on our thoughts. Plus, with a paper planner, there’s no chance of getting interrupted by the parade of other notifications coming through at the top of the screen.

Additionally, the nature of the paper planner serves as a sort of visual record of all the things you’ve accomplished. It can be enjoyable to flip back several months and remember events or achievements you might have otherwise forgotten or deleted on your phone.

One Step at a Time

If you’re used to a certain level of planning and list-making on your phone, doing a full switch from 100 percent phone to 100 percent paper might be jarring. Perhaps a balance between the two is the way to go.

Wong wrote about deciding what exactly you want your paper planner to help you accomplish. Jackie Reeve, a writer for the product-testing site Wirecutter, told Wong that planners usually serve one or more of five functions: strict scheduling, goal planning, artistic planning (sketching, journaling), memory keeping (scrapbooking, doodling), bullet journaling (a trendy grid-based method) or some combination of these. The New York Times article suggested brands of paper planners for each of those functions. So, determine what exactly you want from a planner and which things you’d like to keep to your phone.

In the digital age, there’s almost no way to go completely off the grid or tech-free, and frankly, the capabilities of phones offer us levels of safety and information that weren’t as available or accessible in the past. But if cutting down on screen time is a goal, or sounds appealing, picking up a paper planner might be a good place to start.

By Grace Birnstengel
Before coming to Next Avenue, Grace was the associate editor at a trade magazine in New York. She graduated from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities with a BA in journalism and minor in gender, women and sexuality studies, and she was the editor-in-chief of the school's student magazine, The Wake. She volunteers as an editor for the local feminist quarterly, The Riveter Magazine. Reach her by email at [email protected].

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