Sometimes it seems like there are two people in the world: those who write everything down in a paper planner and those who have everything in their digital calendar. Which one is better? Well, science has something to say about it.
While digital calendars may be convenient, there are neurological benefits to writing things down by hand.
But digital calendars aren’t without their benefits.
“The entirety of the calendar is much more difficult to lose and they can be more environmentally-friendly then their analog counterparts,” said Jennifer Stiegler-Balfour, associate professor at the University of New England.
Stiegler-Balfour said that the ability to sync information across multiple devices, the neat presentation of information and the automatic reminders can also be convenient for users.
However, there are drawbacks to this convenience. Stiegler-Balfour said that to better understand those digital drawbacks, we have to first understand how our minds acquire information.
“People typically remember information not in isolation, but by also encoding the surrounding context in which a memory was created,” Stiegler-Balfour said. “For example, you are more likely to retrieve a childhood memory when you are in your childhood home because the location serves as a cue to retrieve those memories. This is what’s known as context dependent memory.”
Stiegler-Balfour said that context-dependent memory favors the written planner or calendar.
“With a written planner, when you write down appointments and deadlines you now have an object in which you physically wrote information in a specific spot or manner that is encoded along with what was written,” she explained. “In a digital setting, you may end up encoding less information because each day looks alike, the text is all the same size [and] the same color.”
There are also neurological benefits that come with the act of writing itself. A 2014 study from Princeton University and the University of California Los Angeles showed that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. The researchers suggest that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe, which leads to better understanding and memory encoding.
“Writing by hand encourages us to slow down and think about what we want to put onto the page whereas typing typically only involves pressing keys that represent letters,” Stiegler-Balfour said. “Even though we might think that writing and typing are the same, research suggests otherwise. Handwritten notes resulted [in] significantly better memory for information compared to when they were typed, even when subjects were asked to synthesize information and not write it verbatim.”
Research also shows benefits to keeping a handwritten calendar or planner when it comes to keeping track of — and achieving — your goals. Stiegler-Balfour pointed to a 2012 study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that showed that writing out goals and committing to goal-directed actions increased goal achievement.
“I don’t think there are differences among keeping those goals on a digital or written planner,” Stiegler-Balfour clarified. “Research has shown, however, that when you write something down by hand you are stimulating a collection of cells in the base of your brain known as the reticular activation system, [or] RAS. The RAS is in part responsible for directing conscious awareness and helps direct what someone pays attention to versus what they filter out in their environment.”
Finally, there is the issue of limiting screen time generally that favors written calendars and planners.
“Most of us already spend a significant amount of time looking at screens and scrolling through information, and there are always opportunities for distraction,” Stiegler-Balfour said. “So if for nothing else, it might be nice to set aside the computer or phone when it comes time to plan your day or work week.”
Though there is plenty of evidence supporting the neurological benefits of a written calendar or planner, Stiegler-Balfour still admitted to using a digital calendar for certain things.
“I use a digital calendar for scheduled work meetings but maintain my personal appointments and journal in a written calendar,” Stiegler-Balfour explained. “I appreciate getting reminders before meetings but use them sparingly. I enjoy journaling and making to-do lists by hand because it allows me to be more thoughtful [and] think about what I want to accomplish. Striking through an item on a paper to-do list is much more satisfying the digital equivalent.”
No two brains are the same, and Stiegler-Balfour said that each system has its distinct advantages and disadvantages. To figure out what is right for you, Stiegler-Balfour said to consider what you want to accomplish with your planner, as well as their own personal strengths and weaknesses. You may even want to switch back and forth between the two depending on the context.
“If you’re hoping to be more punctual this year, for example, keeping a digital calendar that reminds you of upcoming appointments can be helpful, [but] be sure to use them sparingly as to not get desensitized,” she said. “However, if you’re looking to journal more and track your progress toward goals, then an analog approach might be more beneficial.”