Why You Should Use a Paper Planner

Writing on Paper Improves Memory & Decision Making

Time management can be such a challenge! But organizing maven, Angela Nickerson, shows writing it down in a paper agenda like the Passion Planner capitalizes on your brain's natural abilities making your efforts more effective. With ideas for decorating, printables, weekly and monthly layouts, and daily planning examples, she shows you how to use a planner for work, school, and home calendars.

What does brain research have to do with good planning? A lot, actually. Picture your calendar on your phone. Can you see all the events you have lined up for the next week? The next month? What’s on your agenda for tomorrow? Are you sure?

We can’t make good decisions about our time and talents if we aren’t managing our time well, and online calendars and phones create a disconnect between events and tasks and true time. Therefore we don’t make good decisions about our priorities as a result.

But I am getting ahead of myself!

Before we get into the how of a planning practice, let’s talk a little bit about our brains. Our brains are a miracle of neurons, electrical pulses, chemical reactions, and blazing-fast comprehension speed. We take it for granted, but think about the incredible complexity involved in something as simple as driving while listening to the radio. Your brain is processing the ever-changing visual information coming in through your eyes while also processing the language or music you are hearing and telling your hands to grip and move the steering wheel and your feet to operate the pedals. And that’s just the voluntary stuff! It’s also making your heart beat, controlling the digestion of that smoothie you drank, and assisting in the regulation of your hormones because, hey, it’s that time of the month. Selectively your brain is tuning out how your clothes feel against your skin, the pressure of your body in the seat, the feeling of the steering wheel on your hands, and the smell of your coffee in the cup holder. All of that information is there, but you are not paying attention to those less-important details unless they suddenly become more important. 

Your brain prioritizes details -- what is important and what is not for the task at hand. 

Your brain functions much the same way with memories. If you remembered every moment of every day of your life, you would experience memory overload -- too many memories and no way to sort between what is important and what is not. Fortunately, our brains don’t work this way. Your brain sorts memories much like a filing cabinet. A pathway is created between memories that are related -- your favorite foods, memories of your Hawaiian vacation, the smell of your grandmother’s house -- and those pathways help you to access those memories.

That’s why something seemingly-unrelated can suddenly trigger a long-forgotten memory. Something you experience -- a smell, a feeling, a sound -- takes your brain back to that pathway, and suddenly you are remembering an afternoon with your mother when you were six which you haven’t thought about in many years. 

And your brain actively forgets details and memories to which there is not a pathway. Forgetting -- grooming those memories -- is just as important as remembering for the health of your brain

how do we actively boost our memory & where does planning fit into this?

Planning isn’t intended to create long-term memories for each and every task that you do. But an intentional planning process uses those same deep memory skills to help you set priorities, carefully use your time, and keep you on task. To-do lists alone don’t accomplish this. If you simply make a to-do list each day, your lists are reactionary, momentary, and they don’t help you achieve goals. But planning -- looking at the long-term view, setting goals, planning tasks to achieve those goals, and honestly considering the time and space available in your life, helps you to achieve more, and to better manage your time.

You will also remember more of what you need to do -- and of what you have already done. Your mental calendar will be more effective. 

But there’s a trick: you need to plan on paper. 

Why is paper better than a laptop or a phone?

Educational learning and brain research has found that our brains do not process information when we type it in the same way as when we write it out by hand. Consider note taking: students who take notes on a computer in class take notes differently; they try to capture what is said word-for-word. This dictation-type note taking is a lower form of thinking and therefore does not cultivate long-term learning and higher-level comprehension. The student taking notes on paper has the advantage. This student can not write so fast as to take dictation, therefore she must pay closer attention to what is being said. She must make decisions about what is important to write down. And she must rephrase what is being said in her own words which accesses a higher-level of comprehension. Additionally, using her hands to physically write -- as opposed to typing -- is a more complicated and deeper skill which serves to create even more pathways to that memory in her brain. 

Writing something down by hand creates deeper memories and richer learning and is more effective. 

The same principles then apply to planning. An online calendar will tolerate an infinite number of tasks and events, and inputting these pieces of data does not activate higher-level thinking. However, using a paper planner forces you to make decisions about time and resources. Your planner day is only as big as the rectangle on your page. You must decide how that time will be used, and as your hands write, your brain accesses those deeper memory paths so that, like the student who takes notes by hand, your planning is rooted in a deeper part of your brain, and your planning thinking stems from a higher-level of comprehension and decision-making. 

In other words, planning on paper connects in your brain such that you will make better decisions and remember more. You can plan in other ways, but if you are not writing it down on paper and using a habitual, regular practice, you will not reap as many benefits. 

So how do you establish a regular, paper-based planning practice? Read on!

Monthly spread ideas for moms and student planners.
There are many types of planners depending on your professional and person needs. My personal favorites include the Passion Planner. Click here for  my recommendations .

There are many types of planners depending on your professional and person needs. My personal favorites include the Passion Planner. Click here for my recommendations.

Mueller and Oppenheimer postulate that taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop, and these different processes have consequences for learning. Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture. Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information. Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention. By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.
— Cindi May | A Learning Secret: Don't Take Notes with A Laptop | Scientific American (June 3, 2014)
Planning on a budget can be simple. Use pens to color code information as well as highlighters. You can even DIY a planner using free printables.
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A version of this post appeared in the Fall 2019 Waggle Family Magazine.

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Current brain and educational research shows that writing something down on paper is better than typing for memory and comprehension. The same applies to planning. Using a paper planner like the Passion Planner for monthly, weekly, and daily calendaring is better for time management. Simple ideas for how to use a planner and examples of layout and organization tips. Also: family, mom, work, school