It's the worst feeling. We get a call or an email suddenly reminding us that a project is due or an important meeting has passed by and we've totally forgotten it.

I'm no stranger to the pitfalls of forgetfulness. It's easy for things to slip our minds, especially when we're working on a million things at once. Sure, we've all got a calendar and automated reminders in our pocket everywhere we go, but sometimes even important tasks just don't make it onto the docket. Luckily, I discovered a single, simple technique that has improved my ability to retain and recall information: handwriting notes.

Not a day goes by anymore where I don't have a physical notepad and pen or pencil on my desk as I work. I also carry a small one on me in case I'm on the go and some new information arises. I've found that simply by handwriting important notes, I'm much more likely to remember and follow up on them.

I discovered the technique purely by mistake. I was getting ready for bed one evening and thinking about my agenda for the next day. I had misplaced my phone and my computer was downstairs, but I did have a notebook sitting on my bedside table. Thinking that I'd simply find my phone in the morning, but not wanting to forget any of the to-do's that were on my mind, I wrote myself a list so I could upload the tasks into my daily calendar before I left for work the next day.

What I discovered shocked me. I remembered every task immediately the next morning, and I never even felt the need to upload them into my phone. It was then and there I decided to keep a hard copy agenda with me everywhere I went, and I've found it's dramatically increased my ability to remember tasks even before the familiar reminder notifications crop up.

When I realized how effective the technique was, I decided to do some research. It turns out, there are numerous studies that back up the notion that handwritten notes improve retention over those we type out.

An experiment conducted by researchers Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay at the University of Stavanger in Norway's National Centre for Reading Education and Research showed that writing involves both visual perception and motor function, and that more areas of the brain are activated while handwriting versus typing.

In Mangen and Velay's experiment, two groups of adults were tasked with learning a new alphabet of 20 letters. One group wrote the letters by hand, while the other group used keyboards. After six weeks, the first group scored significantly higher than the second in remembering the letters.

And it's not just that handwriting is good for retention. Turns out, typing on a laptop is actively bad. One series of experiments, conducted by Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer at UCLA, revealed that using a computer for learning and memory likely impairs users by allowing them to more lazily process information.

Writing notes by hand takes a bit longer and forces the brain to dwell on each word a bit more, rather than the "mindless transcription" promoted by typing. The result is that handwritten notes cause the brain to fully digest information, while typing allows us to gloss over the gist of the meaning.

The results of the experiment showed that handwritten notes also improve our ability to fully understand concepts. In business, that translates to a competitive advantage over our fully digital counterparts.

These experiments support my accidental discovery. Since I've used handwritten notes in my day-to-day life, I've definitely experienced the benefits these studies suggest arise as a result. Here are a few tips I've found that help compound the effects of handwriting my notes:

  • Write down important-to-remember tasks multiple times.

  • Re-read your notes the day after writing them.

  • Write important notes right before you go to sleep.

  • Use automated reminders as a support tool, not a primary memory aid.

The more you rely on these techniques and the less you fall back on modern technology, helpful though it is, the more you start to recognize the benefits every day. Now a few months into my habit of handwriting, it seems that I can more easily recall more information with less effort.

Published on: May 30, 2018