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Study Shows Paper Planners Are Better for Staying Organized Than Digital Diaries — Here’s Why

New year, new planner.

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Work deadlines, doctor’s appointments, grocery lists, travel plans — these are just a few of the many things we manage and keep track of each day. Thinking about all of them can get downright stressful, even if some of them are fun. With the new year approaching, now’s an ideal time to get organized; specifically, to ditch the digital calendar and return to more effective paper planners. They might seem old-fashioned, but studies show that they’re better at keeping your to-do lists on track. Here’s why.

Why should I use a paper planner?

Unless you’re one of those rare people who can keep track of plans in your head without needing notes and reminders, you need to jot it all done. These days, that typically means using a digital diary. (In our increasingly online world, the idea of a paper planner feels quaint.) I, however, have to write down all of my plans in a paper planner. For me, the act of physically writing stuff down is vital to feeling organized. It helps me to get a sense of exactly how much I have to do, and how much time I have to do it in. Basically, writing things down gives me the clarity that typing into my phone does not.

It turns out that science supports my pro-paper stance: A 2021 study found that subjects who took notes with pen and paper exhibited more brain activity and memory than subjects who took notes on their smartphones. Additionally, the subjects who wrote by hand finished their note-taking 25 percent faster than those who used a phone or tablet.

One of the study’s authors, University of Tokyo neuroscience professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, explained the study’s findings this way: “Paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall.” In other words, while digital documents are uniform, the quirks of pen and paper help to jog the memory. The simple act of writing things down in a paper planner can, in fact, make remembering them a whole lot easier.

“Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize,” says Professor Sakai.

Which kind of paper planner should I use?

There’s a planner out there for every personality. A monthly planner is ideal for big-picture thinkers who want to see the full month at a glance. If you’re a more granular thinker who prefers taking things one day at a time, a daily planner might be for you. (Because each day has its own page, you can plan things by the hour.) If you find a daily planner intimidating and a monthly planner too cramped, try a weekly planner, which has just enough space for your daily list and additional notes.

To find out which planner you need, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I want the planner to stay on my desk or be easy to carry around?
  • Do I prefer my planner to be structured or loose? (If you’re a creative type, you might be interested in bullet journaling, a popular take on writing in a paper planner that involves customizing a notebook to your specific goals.)
  • Do I prefer a daily, weekly, or monthly layout?
  • Do I prefer a utilitarian planner or a cute one?

One of the most popular planners is the Moleskine brand planner. They’re pretty, with a range of colors and limited-edition designs, and their sizes and layouts work across a variety of organizational needs. Other solid planner brands include Leuchtturm 1917, Hobonichi, Filofax, and Mead. Check stationery shops, bookstores, and office supply stores for a hands-on view of them. Whatever you choose, I hope it helps you stay on top of everything you need to do in the new year.

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