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The Power of Paper & the Downside of Going Green

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

Digital vs Analog

Digital to-do lists, task management systems, calendars and planners are convenient because they’re compact, easily accessible and difficult to lose. They are also able to be synced on various devices, can include auditory reminders, are shareable and have a useful search function. However, you are not alone if you feel like you prefer good old-fashioned paper and pen - notebooks, post-its, paper calendars and full-spread yearly wall planners. In fact, in a survey conducted by ADDitude Magazine, the preference for paper in ADHDers came out clearly. One of the most popular paper planning systems, Bullet Journal, calls itself “the analogue version for the digital age”. My default is still sometimes writing on my hand, but that only works until I need to wash them or shower!

“Touchy-Feely” and “In-your-Face” Approaches

Here’s where going big and tactile (paper) has an advantage over compact and convenient (digital). Hyperactivity in adult ADHD is often hyperactivity of thought. ADHD minds are busy, there is a lot of noise in our heads. ADHD minds are unreliable hard-drives so it makes sense not to rely on them to remember things, to offload into a physical form – be that paper or digital.

Dopamine, which is the brain chemical that is dis-regulated in ADHD brains, is also the one responsible for time-processing. This explains the ADHD propensity toward time distortions – difficulty keeping track of time, being on time and accurately estimating time. ADHD expert Dr. Russel Barkley refers to the concept of “time blindness” or at least “time myopia” (nearsightedness).

Barkley explains as follows: For ADHDers, there are only two times: Now and Not Now. The future is an ephemeral entity and to make it real requires externalizing into a calendar. We need 3-day views, week views and month views (and sometimes even big picture yearly views) to accurately conceptualize today in relation to tomorrow, next week, next month. The bigger picture views help us “feel the future” and prevents us from inappropriate scheduling. (If I only look at my calendar for today and see it’s wide open, I might misinterpret my time availability and overlook the big looming work deadline coming up next week.) Yes, this can all be viewed on a digital calendar. The problem with digital calendars is that to see a week’s view on a smartphone screen is pretty small. To see a month’s view is minuscule. We need a more “in your face” approach or it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind”.

Putting Pen to Paper

The tactile element extends to how you record your information. It is known that handwriting activates an area of the brain called the RAS (reticular activating system), which is responsible for mediating the overall level of consciousness. Basically, writing it down helps you remember it more than typing it does. Even better for remembering something is to draw a picture of it. This requires you bringing up a picture of the item in your mind and then you have to keep referring back to it while you use your motor skills to render an impression of it. All that paying attention to detail helps you remember.

The tactile element of pen and paper makes our brains more active. You could say writing on paper vs typing on a screen is comparable to reading vs watching TV. In a related idea, many people prefer to read real books than e-readers. One of the reasons is that the tactile element of feeling and turning the pages is more active than thumb-scrolling or flipping a digital page with the swish of a finger.

Using handwriting for brainstorming and planning gives us a break from our screen-dominated lives. There are less distractions during these “analog” planning sessions because we’ve distanced ourselves from pop-up notifications, enticing browser tabs and our email, WhatsApp and Facebook apps. Not to mention that there is nothing more satisfying than scratching an item off your physical to-do list. Sometimes, if it’s a particularly big frog I’ve eaten, I enthusiastically scribble over the item several times! You also have a record of all you’ve accomplished (as opposed to deleting into obsoletion from a digital list), which can be an essential feel-good element after a challenging ADHD day.

Can We Do It? Yes we KANBAN!

During the summer with its lack of schedule, when it’s even more challenging to keep track of things, I'm having a play around with the Personal Kanban Board system and enjoying the tactile element and bright Post-It colors. The basic idea is a 3-column board – on a whiteboard, cork-board, wall or office window: Column 1 is for your To Dos. You write your to-do’s on post-its (I had fun color-coding the different types of to-dos) and them all up on the To-Do section. Column 2 is for Doing (work in process, today...) Once you start something, or intend to do it today, you move it to this column. Column 3 is for Done items. Once you’ve finished it, the item goes to the Done section, where your accomplishments accumulate in brightly colored Post-It proof of your productivity! On a similar note, I often tell my clients to keep a “Got Done” list along with their to-do lists. ADHD brains can get bogged down in the details and discouraged by overwhelm, so it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge our accomplishments.

It’s Not all Sunshine and Rainbows

There are some disadvantages to using paper and pens. You have to remember to take your planners with you whereas if you go digital, you are less likely to forget your phone. Paper planners are bulkier and less tidy than your smartphone. I’m the queen of losing things and would be devastated to misplace my life-in-planner-form. It’s also more difficult to make a quick note when you’re out and about.

Get the Best of Both Worlds

The way to get around these disadvantages is to create some form of combo between digital and paper. I use Google Calendar because I need the search feature, recurring events feature and the reminders and alarms. But I find when I print out a picture of my day, week or even month, I have a better awareness of what is coming up. It’s not perfect. I have to remember when I make changes to add or change something on the printout too. I love my simplified Bullet Journal method, but I get around the danger of losing things by snapping a screenshot of my to-do list when I need leave my office. Or I’ll use a digital sticky note on the home-screen of my phone to record the top 5 things I need to get done.

I know I’m not the only person who gets her best ideas when out walking (or in the shower). When this happens, I send myself a voice message on WhatsApp. (Just open a Whatsapp group with you and one other person. Then delete them from the group voilà - you’ve got yourself a system for sending yourself WhatsApps!)

Another great combination idea is a smart notebook like the Rocketbook Wave Smart Notebook. It gives you the advantages of pen and paper— while also providing valuable backup by instantly sending everything you write into the Cloud using your smartphone. Livescribe or Moleskin are other popular options.

The Perfect System?

The bad news is - there's no one magic method. The best method is the one you actually use! It’s important to note that it takes time to get the hang of a system (something that novelty-seeking ADHD brains are not always good at.) Give your system a three-month shot before deciding it needs to be updated.

Do you have a working system? (Aside from writing on your hand, which was and sometimes still is, my default)! What’s your system? Leave us a comment below.

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