Sticky Notes

In my previous post, I aimed the spotlight at one of OneNote’s hidden features: electronic sticky notes, a.k.a. Side Notes.

Like many of you, I work on a computer every day. I constantly aim to fulfill the personal computer’s original purpose: To make the machine do as much work for me as possible, not create more busy work. So, for me, doing stuff on my computer rather than on paper almost always wins out.

Now, a group of researchers at MIT has restarted an old debate:
Why Computers Can't Kill Post-Its (Forbes Magazine, 01/22/2009)

In a nutshell, the old argument is that when you need to jot something down, the ease of peeling off a sticky note from its pad and scribbling down a random thought will always be better/faster/easier than grabbing a laptop (or a cell phone) and typing the information electronically. I must admit, I used to think this was true. Windows, for example, has always included some sort of Notepad application. Ironically, I have faithfully used Notepad over the years for editing electronic text files and HTML code, but never for note-taking. Later, the Journal application was introduced. I never looked at it sideways. It wasn’t until OneNote 2003 was released that I gave electronic note-taking a try and was sold on it — sticky notes and all. No, that’s not because I work at Microsoft. I was sold on OneNote because the program was designed in smart ways that got around the typical computer program conundrum, which the Forbes article chronicles in its Outlook example.

Keeping important information from various sources all in one place is almost always a benefit in my work, and OneNote is the one program that finally came along and made this possible (and easy). Storing my stuff in electronic format also saves me time by reducing or even eliminating duplication of effort, which is the very thing that happens when scribbling important notes on a piece of paper and having to rewrite or retype them elsewhere later on for the purpose of sharing the information with others or putting it in its rightful place. If you pay close attention to your daily routines for even just a little while, you quickly realize how much repetitive busy work we do every day while banishing ourselves to an eternal Cut & Paste hell (“monkey work,” as my boss’ boss calls it). And with the growing awareness about going “green” and saving natural resources wherever possible, the choice to go paperless almost always wins me over.

In all of the other note-taking programs I had seen before, you always had to save each entry or file separately when you were done. You couldn’t focus on your thinking and writing, you had to immediately decide where the files should live on your hard drive. Worse, you had to be organized about keeping everything together, or risk losing important information. There was no automatic backup to help safeguard your information. The list goes on and on. OneNote won me over when I realized that I didn’t have to be strictly organized in order to use it and benefit from it. You can use the program as free-form as you like, and you can go nuts about organizing stuff later on — if or when you feel like it. The choice is yours. OneNote’s most underappreciated benefit is a design choice that freaks out many new users: There’s no Save button on the toolbar. This is perhaps my favorite thing about OneNote. I can trust that everything I type is stored instantly, without me having to make any decisions about saving or wondering where my stuff ended up. It all just works the same way that I work.

“Office workers are like electricity: When they want to get something done, they follow the path of least resistance,” says the author of the Forbes piece. Perhaps so, but I also think that the popularity of Post-Its has to do with old habits being hard to break. We tend to (pardon the pun) stick with what we know, and we get pretty frustrated when someone moves our cheese. Think of the last time a feature, a toolbar button, or a menu command in your favorite computer program was changed, or removed in a new version. You didn’t immediately care whether the new design was better. Instead, you spent most of your time complaining that you had to change your routine. Over the years, I’ve had many of my own experiences with this — most recently the Fluent interface (a.k.a. the Ribbon) in the four main Office 2007 applications. Looking back, I can laugh at myself for even slightly resisting change at times when the new design could have saved me time and effort if only I had given it a fair chance. When we’re honest with ourselves about being creatures of habit, it’s often the first step in being open to a better way of working. I’m not at all a believer in changing things for change’s sake, but more often than not, change lets us grow and make progress.

Truth be told, when I first joined the OneNote team, I was very reluctant to let go of my trusty paper notebook. In my head, I made all of the same pro/con comparisons that the Forbes article makes about paper sticky notes and computers. Ultimately, I found out that the paperless method worked better for me once I really committed to using a program like OneNote. The fact that OneNote requires a computer to run isn’t an issue for me. I already use a computer pretty much all day, every day. After the 2-3 seconds it takes to start up OneNote, it’s like a natural extension of my brain. I have OneNote running on my desktop computer to access shared notebooks across the company network, gather information from various sources (the Web, Office documents, screen clippings) and I have OneNote on my laptop for meeting notes. Reaching over to grab a paper sticky note at any point during the day would actually take more effort than pressing the Windows logo key+N in OneNote to create a new Side Note. As I pointed out in my previous post, the fact that Side Notes automatically inherit all of the functionality of regular OneNote pages makes the whole paper vs. computer argument a no-brainer for me.

For the record, I don’t think that there’s any need to kill paper sticky notes. For one or two random things during the day, I still use them on occasion. But as an organizational system for managing thoughts and tasks, a growing pile of paper sticky notes all over my desk fails me every time. Computers don’t make our lives easier by merely sitting on our desks. They make our lives easier when we choose to use them to their full potential. Installing and using OneNote got me a lot closer to this goal.

So, what’s your take on sticky notes? Do you prefer paper or a computer program (and why)? Have you checked out the Side Notes feature in OneNote? If so, what do you like or dislike about it? If you could improve sticky note programs on computers, how would you make them better? And can you think of any features of paper that haven’t yet been successfully implemented in the note-taking programs that you’ve seen or tried?