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Why You Should Take Notes By Hand

It's not just better for your memory; it's better for the people around you too.

Whether you're in a meeting, or a training session, or a lecture trying to remember information, the most used method for retention is taking notes. And technology continues to present us with more and more options for note-taking like computers, tablets, phones, watches, futuristic eyeglasses. But even as the technology grows more complex, it turns out none of these methods have created an advantage on good old-fashioned paper and pen (or pencil … or quill).

In the last few years, there have been several studies of memory retention using a variety of different tools for note-taking and studies on how the presence of devices affects our interpersonal communication. It’s become a well-replicated finding that note-taking by hand comes out on top in almost all circumstances. In the workplace, there are actually two solid reasons for taking notes by hand.

The first is that when we take notes by hand, it takes longer to write than the other person can speak. And that turns out to be a benefit. Because we can’t write by hand as fast as another person can talk, we end up having to synthesize and summarize the information we just heard. And the research supports this. Just before we write it down, we have to process what the information means to us. When we’re typing on a computer (or for millennials and younger, when we’re typing on a phone), we can often go so fast that our notes end up as a near-perfect transcription of what was said. But there was no processing involved in transcription. So, we end up retaining more in the short term when we take notes by hand, and we also end up understanding more.

The second reason is that when you have a device—whether it's a computer or a phone or a tablet— in front of you, that devices degrade the value of the conversation. In several different studies, even just having your phone on the table not only distracts you but it also makes the other person perceive that you’re less invested in the conversation … even if the device faces down … even if it’s turned off. One of my favorite studies suggests that just having a turned-off cell phone in the room with you can significantly reduce your score on intelligence tests. (I’ll stop short of suggesting that your phone is making you dumber ... but we’re not that far away.)

So not only do you retain more when you take notes by hand, but you have a better interaction with the people that you're in that meeting or attending a lecture alongside. Ultimately, you have to find a system of note-taking that works for you (pen or pencil; notebook or legal pad, etc). But the research strongly suggests that your search for the perfect tools should begin and end with handwritten notes.

This post originally appeared as an episode of the DailyBurk.

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