Why you should put your laptops away in meetings

As someone who grew up with computers since elementary school, I don’t feel nostalgia for the smell of ink or the feel of paper. But when it comes to taking notes in meetings, I try to fight the lure of my laptop too. The siren’s call of my laptop’s distractions just make it too hard to focus.

Yes, I’m jotting down notes but I have also been conditioned to click immediately on push notifications by a lifetime of laptops and engineers designing addictive features that make us want to drop everything and click. I’m unable to resist a ping, even if the email or Slack message is something that can wait.

The pen is mightier than the screen

A psychology science study backs up why the best thing to do is to surrender and shut down our screens during meetings and lectures. A 2014 study found that university students who took longhand notes were able to retain more complex information than students taking notes on laptops.

In other words, even though the laptop notetakers were able to type more information than the slower longhand notetakers, that information wasn’t necessarily helpful.

Both longhand and computer notetakers were able to recall facts, but the longhand notetakers were much better at answering conceptual questions that required analysis, like “how do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?”

In these type of critical thinking questions, the computer notetakers performed “significantly worse.”

Longhand notetakers were also better at recalling information long after the lecture was over: “Even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand.”

Researchers believed this is because laptop notetakers are more inclined to take verbatim notes instead of writing what they’re hearing in their own words. That hurts them. By “summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping” in their own words, the longhand notetakers were able to make deeper connections to the text than the shallower processing verbatim copying gave laptop notetakers.

The optics of staring at a screen in a meeting

Even when I am writing relevant notes on a screen, I’m aware that looking down at a screen and not at my colleague makes it seem as if I’m not paying attention.

As journalist Kim Bui wrote in her management newsletter, longhand notes not only help you focus, they also help everyone around you know that you have their undivided attention: “I realized people assumed when I was typing on my laptop that I was texting or Slack-ing. Now I only bring my phone and notebook unless I’m presenting something. It signals that I am all in, totally present and relieves me of distractions (Slack).”

In today’s pitch meeting, I did not bring my laptop, and though I felt the itch to type and I don’t enjoy the look of my scraggly handwriting, I noticed that it forced me to listen and be fully present to my colleagues.

I use my laptop in every other facet of my job, but when it comes to notetaking, I concede to the superior power of paper and pen.