For my entire working life, I’ve prided myself on living digitally. I’ve used e-textbooks and e-books for school assignments. I’ve typed out my lecture notes. I’ve submitted my papers through e-mail and online dropboxes. For the most part, I’ve tried to limit my environmental impact and conserve as much physical material as possible.

I ran into a problem with this paradigm recently however. I was attempting to reference some notes I had typed into my iPhone a few months back, but I couldn’t remember which app I had stored them in. I have migrated from note-taking app to note-taking app consistently over the last three to four years and my content has evolved into all shapes and sizes. My first notes were merely text files with many hyphens and bullet points. They quickly evolved into Markdown files with numerous asterisks and pound symbols (hashtags?). However, not all apps support Markdown formatting and my concept of neatly organized text files has always been flawed.

My digital notes are a huge mess. They have no organization system — other than being in a folder named for the course or context — and are certainly not worth the time to revisit and fix.

I’ve tried to find simple apps that fit my workflow and I most recently settled on Simplenote. Simplenote is a free application for the iPhone, iPad and Mac that seamlessly syncs tagged notes. There are higher-end features to allow collaboration and publishing of notes, but I never found a use for them. Simplenote is perfect for my digital notes except for one critical flaw: no archive feature. I need some type of archive system so I can search through my ideas and notes in the future.

Further, and far more detrimental, is that continual evolution of technology I mentioned earlier. Every few months, new apps, new services and new features are launched that cause a reconsideration of my entire workflow. Sometimes I find a drive to convert my workflow solely because I want to use a new app. This volatility puts something as eternal as your ideas into jeopardy.

That really scares me. Our ideas are who we are and make us human. Ideas are eternal only if they are passed on. Are digital notes set up in such a manner to be passed on? Will our digital notes last hundreds of years into the future?

I don’t think they will — at least not in the form we expect.

So I’m going right back to the drawing board, literally. The most fundamental form of note-taking is via the pen and paper. We can still read ideas and notes written hundreds of years ago. Paper is a fundamental material of humanity and you can bet it will be around for a very long time.

I have a few ideas about how I will use a pen and paper going forward:

  • I will use memo books for ideas and ideas only. My to-do list is not something that needs to be logged for an eternity and is far easier to manage digitally.

  • I will use my iPhone for recording ideas on the go, but I will transfer them to a written memo book when I sit down at my desk.

  • I will continue my digital journal. I have too many types of sentimental material to be logged in a physical journal; links, photos and locations that can be logged without too much effort is still the best format for journaling.[1]

  • I will organize my written ideas with a system similar to the Bullet Journal. Hopefully this will help with creating a lasting archive.

  • I will use one type of memo book and I will try to use one type of pen. I am infatuated with Moleskine Cahier Pocket books and Moleskine Rollerball Pens.

I realize the consequence of using physical books to create an archive of my ideas. Physical books can burn in a house fire, can fade over time and can be difficult to store as the archive grows.

But the likelihood of my digital notes and ideas not lasting well into the future is probably more likely than a house fire destroying my physically written notes.

It feels very weird carrying around a pen and memo book wherever I go. My trusty iPhone has been essential to my organization scheme over the last few years. It’s probably hypocritical of me to switch over to physical memo books after my advocacy of a digital life. But I have learned about the finality of ideas, especially in today’s overflowing idea market.

Our ideas, our opinions and our thoughts are a reflection of our soul. We all shoot to leave behind a positive legacy and have our ideas last for many years beyond our time. And with today’s constant technological change, I have become aware of the mortality of my digital thoughts. The trusty pen and paper will make a return to my life and I never thought I would say such a thing.


  1. I never kept a physical journal and only started my journaling habit once I discovered Day One. I cringe at the thought of trying to make such a switch.  ↩