Paper or Apps — which is the best medium for productivity?

Your personal productivity system can be based on paper or on an app. But which medium is best? How do you collaborate effectively with others? This post explains my perspective and recommendations to these topics.

Using paper

Paper is a durable medium. Research has shown that the things you commit to paper are more rememberable for your brain than other sources of information. The fact of writing engages you thoroughly with your content and lets you see your thoughts.

Paper is a very flexible medium. It requires a lot of structuring to work effectively. You need to decide which information you put on paper and how you visualize your goals, projects and tasks. But the fun part is that you can experiment with all kinds of templates, forms, and layouts. This freedom allows you to customize your system with all and only the required information that you need.

Access to paper requires the physical representation of it. You can share your notepad, or you can share a photo copy of the content. People that see your system need to understand which information you structure in order to work with it.

Using Apps

Apps are a pervasive medium. Either a native app on your smartphone, a web interface, or a program on your computer — you access your data from wherever you are. This constant access can improve your exposure to and repetition of the information that you are consuming.

Apps provide a fixed structure. They predefine how information like goals, projects and tasks are represented and structured. You need to work with this structure in order to get the most out of it. If you do not have a personal productivity system, this might help you very much to discover a system that works for you.

Access to an app requires an app or computer. Data can be shared with anyone and everywhere. Because an app provides a structure, others need to understand this structure to understand what you are working on. A big difference is that you can even allow others to work with your system and change the contained data.

Collaboration and Sharing Information

Collaboration is a key issue when your projects involve several people. Let’s consider how they are used initially to create and how to share information.

When used as a medium to create and brainstorm, sharing paper notes, patching them to a whiteboard, flipping them makes it a powerful tool in workshops. With an app its more different, it depends a lot of the features. The app can allow a touch interface to draw and write, it can be used by different people at the same time, and much more. Yet other apps may only be used by one specific person at the same time, making other participants mere speculators.

When used to share information, using paper has shortcomings. A piece of paper has only one physical representation. You can only add so much new information to paper, and changing the structure requires you to rewrite the things again. Sharing data in apps allows anywhere-anytime access. People can change and add information freely, but should follow well-defined processes to prevent a mess).

What works best?

The answer to this question start with thinking about your private and your public productivity system. Your private system includes relevant professional goals, projects and tasks, as well as all your private ones. The public productivity system contains everything that you want to share and need to collaborate on.

In your private system, use the medium that best fits you. If this is already an app, investigate if you can share the data with your coworkers in a meaningful way. If this is paper, continue to work with it, but identify which parts need to be shared with others, and use an appropriate app.

The public system should be an app. Why? Because in every group, the need to change information structure and processes emerges frequently. An app allows you just to do this, to adapt and change according to your information needs. Is paper completely out of this picture? That depends on you and your team. At workshops, I made the experience several times that paper is the better medium because it engages the participants completely. Everyone can grab a pen and paper, add and visualize information in a shared space. Use this creativity. Then, decide which information you want to keep, and commit this information to your public productivity system.

Conclusion

Paper and app based productivity systems are different. Paper engages people more, is accessible, but needs lots of structuring and is not good with sharing. Apps are versatile, provide a fixed structure, and can share information easily. Use paper as a private system and to create and brainstorm at collaboration, and use an app for a public system to effectively share and evolve information.

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Sebastian

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