Advantages of a paper planner in a digital age

There are many advantages of a paper planner, even in this digital age. So is a pen mightier than a screen? We think so, with 6 benefits of using paper for the environment, your mental health, your sleep and physical health, and for attention and memory.

Is digital the way of the future?

We know from our own experiences that so much is going digital. Our work lives are dominated by the screen and constant digital communication. School is all about devices, communicating electronically and learning through digital resources with one-to-one devices. Home life is digital, with bills arriving in your inbox not your letterbox, and an app for every function you could want.

Robert Tercek’s book Vaporized tells of how everything we use is being turned into an app. The physical form is vaporising and becoming digital. He gives the example of the (not so humble) smart phone. You used to have:

  • a camera, film or digital
  • a street directory, book form of course, sitting in the glove box of your car
  • a little address and birthday book to remember contact details of friends and family
  • a landline phone, possibly on a cord that you had to pull into another room for privacy
  • a walkman/boom box/mp3 player/discman that played music
  • a console for gaming
  • a notebook and calendar for taking notes and organising yourself
  • a video camera to take home movies
  • a bookcase full of paper books

Now all these physical items have become digital apps that exist on your smart phone. Camera, gallery, maps, contacts, spotify, streaming videos, mobile games, ebook reader – they are all little files of code rather than physical items.

I’d like to think that this had led towards minimalism, with empty houses not filled with stuff… but that’s not the case.

The revenge of analog

David Sax wrote a book, The Revenge of Analog, which details how the physical world is not going away. In fact, many people are returning back to physical, as a way to improve their lives. From Polaroid photos, hardcover books and paper planners, there’s something about physical items that calls to us.

What is it about the digital world that, while very convenient, doesn’t appeal on a basic level? In our busy world, part of our own wellness and proactive mental health is about switching off. It’s about gaining connection with the physical world, using our tactile bodies, and being active. These are things that the digital world can’t give us, and we’re realising that they are important to have.

Digital downsides

Not convinced yet that we might want to step away from the digital world, at least while we’re at home recharging?

There is a lot of research that’s been down around screen time. We’ve trawled through the databases to summarise some of the common links here, from depression, to sleep and learning.

Screen time and depression

Screen time is a predictor of depression. In this meta-analysis of a quarter of a million participants globally, they found links between

  • greater links between internet use and depression in younger people (0-20 years old), than with older people
  • stronger links between depression and screen time in women, compared to men

However, they also found that being physically active and having strong connections to others are preventative factors, despite screen use.

Sleep and digital use

Screen time has been associated with sleep disorders. This lack of sleep could lead to increased risk of depression. 90% of studies reviewed here found an association between screen use and decreased total sleep duration. A lack of sleep has connections to obesity, decreased mental/academic functioning and decreased wellbeing. It is recommended to avoid screens at least 60 mins before bed time, as blue light suppresses the release of melatonin, the hormone needed to regulate sleep/wake cycles.

Digital note taking vs handwriting

The research isn’t unanimous on this link, but some papers do indicate a better recall of what was written with handwriting, rather than typing. This indicates a link between psychomotor action (the physical act of writing) and memory.

Screen time and physical health

Due to the sedentary nature of screen use, there are many adverse physical effects. These can include:

  • poor sleep (as mentioned above)
  • increased risk of cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure
  • obesity
  • poor stress regulation (increased cortisol, the stress hormone)
  • insulin resistance, leading to diabetes
  • headaches and eye strain
  • impaired vision
  • decreased bone density

The literature reviews are many and varied, but there seems to be a fairly strong connection to most of these effects.

Why is the future a paper planner?

If you’re smart about your health, you are probably thinking by now that you should do something about reducing your screen time. At least, reducing your use of a screen when you don’t have to. I know that most work environments would frown upon you suddenly sending postal mail instead of an email, or making a presentation on poster paper rather than a presentation software. But when you don’t have to be in front of a screen at home, why no choose to go analog?

Home organisation is the perfect opportunity to go for a paper planner. When you’re going over the week’s organisation, meal planning, or making notes, it makes sense to go paper instead of digital. There are many advantages of a paper planner.

2024 planner

5 advantages of a paper planner in a digital age

1. Improve your sleep and physical health

If using a screen too often is linked to more problems with sleep and physical health, it makes sense that reducing screen time will help. As experts recommend no screens at least an hour before bed, using a paper planner has an advantage. It means you can touch base in the evening with meal planning, the next day’s organisation, or appointment notes on paper without exposing yourself to blue light. So, you can spend less time on a screen, including in those crucial hours before bedtime. Then, you may have better sleep. This will lead to better physical health, including less eye strain, headaches, and lower risk of many conditions including diabetes, stress and heart disease.

2. Improve your mental health

As mentioned above, screen time is a predictor of depression, with strong links between the amount of screen time and depression for women. So a paper planner might actually improve your mental health by getting you away from a screen.

In Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, he suggests that technology can be useful to communicate with people for one reason. To organise social catch-ups with friends. But for actual deep connection with people, screens should go away. This resonates with the literature that supports being physically active and having strong connections to others are preventative factors of depression.

So use your paper planner to record your coffee dates, social fitness sessions, and daily reflections of gratitude. You’ll be contributing proactively to a positive mental health.

3. Engage more, remember more

Writing down by hand has benefits over typing. One study found that taking notes by hand improved conceptual understanding compared to taking notes on a laptop. Other research suggests a better recall of what was written with handwriting, rather than typing. There are also links between attention and writing – those writing by hand are less likely to be distracted and more likely to review and go back over their writing.

So, without the distraction of a screen and a device, using a paper planner may help you remember more, give you a space to draw connections, doodle and be creative for better understanding, and help you focus and be attentive more when you need to be.

4. Gain a sensory experience and have fun

Physical books can convey information more effectively than digital formats due to their multi-sensory experience. Physical paper has a tactile presence – it has weight, texture, as well as smell and sound. Engaging multiple senses may invoke nostalgia, be more pleasant or appealing, and even help with memory by engaging multiple neural pathways at the same time.

Gaining sensory input is important for a sensory diet, whether looking to keep our brain active or feeding a sensory seeking neurodivergent profile. And there are tons of fun pens, washi tapes, highlighters, stickers and stamps to add to the sensory experience of writing on paper.

5. Be more sustainable

Paper is one of the most recycled products, with rates of 68-91% of paper products being recycled globally. And 1 kilogram of recycled paper produces around 0.95 kg to 1.3 kg of carbon emissions. Yet many will claim that digital reading is more sustainable that printed paper products.

It’s a complex question of which is more sustainable, paper or paperless. But consider that a laptop or device may have around 270 kg of embodied carbon dioxide in energy emissions before you even turn it on. Then consider the energy use of charging a phone, of the server farms that hold the data for your apps and web browsing, and all the other hidden carbon emissions with a device. Reading on screen for an hour may produce 0.3 kg of carbon emissions. And then there’s the e-waste, the heavy metals, and the batteries in a device at the end of its lifecycle.

So, with some very rough back-of-the-envelop calculations, if you use your planner for 10 minutes every day of the year:

  • a paper planner of 150 pages that weighs around 500g could come with a life-time carbon emissions of 0.65 kg. And it can be recycled at the end of it’s life.
  • a digital planner may produce 45 kg from the laptop embodied carbon over 10 years of use and energy use over a year.

Now, those calculations may be completely wrong, but recent research on the life cycle assessment of paper note taking vs different brands of tablets found that a paper notebook out-performed tablets in most environmental impact category. From production, to use and end-of life, a paper planner far exceeds in terms of environmental credentials, especially if you use most of the pages. So the environmental credentials may be provide compelling advantages of a paper planner.

Why paper still rules for organisation

A sophisticated digital planner may be tempting, but there are many advantages of a paper planner for notes and organisation.

  • you might remember more of what you record on your lists
  • you can improve your physical health, sleep and mental health
  • you gain a sensory experience from using a tactile product
  • it may even be more sustainable, if using recycled paper, compared to the energy use of multiple apps and batteries in a digital device

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