Revisiting sticky notes: Computer or paper?

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?

Comments (9)

  1. Peter Morris says:

    I used to use paper sticky notes until I found 3M’s Post it notes for the desktop. Perfect. It was just a click on the icon in the system tray and type. I still prefer these but I don’t use them anymore. I’m a big fan of OneNote so I’m trying very hard to remember that OneNote has sticky notes. You can do alot more with OneNotes sticky notes but that defeats the purpose of them IMO. They should really be small, simple and clean. If you want more then be all means have the ability to configure more but default should be basic click ‘n’ type.

    I also have OneNote open all the time along with Outlook so rather than jot down tasks on a sticky note, I enter them into Outlook and I also oreganise my workload better. On the whole, it’s reduced my need for sticky notes.

  2. TechieBird says:

    I use physical sticky-notes when I want to associate a task with a physical location that isn’t at my computer.  

    The ones I can think of recently were a note on the inside of my front door to remind me to take something to work, and a note on my keyboard for something I needed to do before I switched on my computer.

    For everything else I use something electronic, usually OneNote.

  3. Daniel says:

    I use the OneNote Journal Powertoy. WIN+J and I can already write into today’s page.

    When I have spare time, I process the inputs I’ve taken and take action, reorganize, delete…

    I’m one of those guys looking forward for Onenote 14.

  4. Thanks for your comments so far. It’s always very interesting for me to see how everyone uses OneNote as part of their daily routine and workflow.

    Peter, the OneNote icon in the system tray can also be setup to create a sticky note with a single click, the way you describe the 3M software. For more information about changing the icon settings, check out the article at

    TechieBird, I use paper Post-Its the same way as you, mainly for inside my office door to remind me of important errands after work or to bring something in the next day. I also occasionally use them on the keyboard of my test machines to remind myself of temporary configuration settings that I need to change again. Everything else is in OneNote.

    Daniel, I’m really looking forward to OneNote 14 as well. It’s going to be great, and I can’t wait until I can blog about it.  🙂

  5. aldwyth says:

    I love onenote and use all the time.  tried to use the sticky note, but when I’m using 4 or 5 to keep adding to while I’m working, I end up with a tray full of open notes and it is more trouble to find the one I want to jot in an idea than the post-it software.  Outlooks notes fails to be what the post-it note is also.  Post-it is closest to the paper deal.  Wish onenote did it, but so far it does everything else I want.

  6. Daniel says:

    Will the improvements and new features in OneNote 14 match those made in 2007 as compared to the 2003 version?

    When (month) do you thing you’ll be able to blog something (anything) about it?

    At least let us know if any the tagging system has been improved (like filtering, searching only inside tags…).


  7. Russell says:

    Hey the problem isn’t sticky vs. one note. The problem is the hardware. sticky note (small, light and scribble worthy)Computer (heavy, large and on tablets scribble worthy) Give a person a thin light convertible tablet and sticky note will be like steam engines.

    convertible would be light as a paper notebook.

  8. Daniel says:

    Russell, check Asus’s new T91 & T101 convertible netbooks.

    It will rock my world together with OneNote 14 which hopefully will get a better Mobile version.

  9. Louis Palm says:


    I do not use Onenote sticky note, cause Onenote is always open on my 2nd monitor, and stuff is just dragged and dropped, clipped, linked etc, from my working monitor to the open Onenote on my 2nd Monitor.

    I would however like to make a suggestion, if not already being toiled with.

    Why not adding adding additional functionalities to Onenote sticky notes, by having some sort of UI ala, OfficeLab’s "Stickysorter"

    By incorporating something like stickysorter and using Onenote "notes" as back-end data, additional functionalities inter alia could include:

    -Simplistic Freeform Database

    -Idea management tool

    -Random idea generator

    -Concept mapping

    -Information chain linking data grouping

    -Dynamic Archive

    –  etc.

    I will tell you, that small add-onn, alone, would open a whole new user market segment for Onenote.

    Happy noting!