On Paper

Or: how not to look like a dick in meetings


I have terrible handwriting, always have. The moment I left school and managed to get away with either making notes and writing on either laptops, phones, or tablets I was a happy man. No more pens. No more paper. Hello 21st century.

But a few months ago, I dug deep in our storage and pulled out a notebook. I also dug up a pen. I put them in my backpack and ever since “Zef’s blue notebook” has become a thing in the company. The initial responses seeing this were in the vein of “am I in trouble?” Now people are no longer alarmed.

So what the hell happened?

A few months ago I got a bit frustrated at a meeting — a last drop if you will, after seeing about a third of participants sitting at the meeting with their laptops open. As a result, I wrote a mildly aggressive post on our intranet social network (we use Facebook’s “Workplace” internally). I just reread the contents and I won’t replicate it here, let me just quote the title:

Laptop open or phone in your hand during a meeting = I don’t give a shit about the people in this room.

It’s something I’ve seen in many companies: people coming to meetings with their laptops open or phone in hand. How can you truly pay attention that way? How can you be present? How can you contribute? How can you not look like a (excuse my French) dick?

I got myself into a habit of not bringing a laptop to a meeting a long time ago, unless there was a clear reason (having to do some screen sharing). However, this caused a problem, because as a result I also wasn’t making notes. And as I talk to a lot of people in the course of a day, and my short-term memory is… bad (my boss calls me Dory), how do I keep track of everything?

I tried different approaches: attempting to remember stuff and make notes after the meeting (but I couldn’t get into the habit of slotting 10 minutes of break in between meetings for this), or making notes on my phone, but this still made me feel like a dick (somebody’s talking to you, and you’re looking at your phone), and sometimes I saw notifications coming in pulling me into Slack so… not helpful.

And then I switched to pen and paper.

It’s distraction free. It’s portable. And to the other people in the meeting it communicates and emphasizes that I’m paying attention (unless I’d be visibly doodling — but I don’t). All the while I still keep a record of what is discussed, which I often refer to later in the day or week, or in the follow up meeting. It’s not as searchable or browsable as digital copy, but it’s acceptable. The free-form nature of paper also allows you to make more annotations later on, to highlight important stuff. Occasionally (even with my handwriting) notes can even look visually appealing, and finding a good type of pen (I settled on rollerball pens) makes a big difference in experience.

It’s retro. It somehow feels off, but it works for me. For now.

I presented my approach and rationale to somebody in my team. His comment:

“Nice. So… how does it feel to kill all those trees?”