Note to self: paper diaries always trump digital ones

Opinion: paper is faster, requires no password and never runs out of batteries

Last week I fell in love all over again with my purple Moleskine diary. For a while over the summer I’d joined the modern age and started organising my life electronically, but now I’ve gone back to the old way. When it comes to calendars, paper versions are vastly superior to electronic ones, from almost whichever way you look at them.

I can't think of anything else this is so true of. Email is better than letters insofar as there is no hunting for envelopes and stamps. Google Maps are better than the A to Z as the street you want is not inevitably on the edge of the page. And eBay beats the high street for too many reasons to list.

For a start, when it comes to electronic diaries there is something obscurely stressful about having your engagements on a cloud. The great thing about paper, as the expert organiser David Allen has pointed out, is that it's in your face. I want my dates to be in my face – or at least in my handbag. I want to see them in my own handwriting as my solemn promise that I'm going to do whatever I've written there.

Second, electronic diaries are slowcoaches compared with the speedy paper version. To prove it, I’ve just assembled two groups of people and asked them what they are up to on October 30th. The first group whipped out their smartphones, typed in a password and then engaged in a good deal of jabbing. The fastest got there in 17 seconds, the slowest in 32. The paper crowd opened their diaries and turned straight to the page in an average of eight seconds flat.


Scientific testing

When I asked them to put in a lunch date, the gap was wider still. My paper guinea pigs took five seconds to scribble something down, while those on iPhones took six times longer.

Electronic calendars are so cumbersome that a therapist I know has forbidden her patients to use them in her consulting room. At the end of every session, she says she will email them the date of the next appointment, to avoid having to waste her 10-minute break between patients while they faff around with their digital diaries.

Another big advantage of paper is that you always know exactly where you are. I can see a whole day and a week at a glance, so have no need of the annoying reminders that Google delights in sending me.

Not only is paper faster and requires no password, it doesn’t ever run out of batteries or freeze, and things don’t get mysteriously deleted.

Better still is the satisfaction that comes from the physical object itself. Every Christmas I get a new diary in a different colour. The creamy empty pages fill me with a sense of possibility, an emotion that no digital page, no matter how empty, can ever create. At the end of the year the battered volume joins its predecessors on a shelf, waiting for a time in the future when I start to wonder what I used to get up to in the past.

But for me the biggest advantage of the paper diary is that it is private. It is exceedingly bad form to poke your nose into anyone else’s diary – everyone knows that. Everyone, that is, apart from Google.

Electronic diaries, by contrast, are usually shared. The shared diaries that most companies (alas, including my own) now insist on strike me as a more grievous invasion of privacy than CCTV cameras and Facebook put together.

Virtual planner

Colleagues can see when you are free and delight in silting up those precious hours with meetings. Fans of the system say it is miles quicker and easier to schedule meetings this way, rather than the old hell of having to corral a dozen people individually. They are quite right. Yet because it is easy, the result is more meetings with more people going to them, which wastes more time than any that is saved by more speedy scheduling.

Sharing diaries at home – as many modern families do – is the saddest “advance” of all, as it dispenses with the need to talk. Sitting down and discussing what everyone is up to seems as much part of family glue as occasionally breaking bread together.

In this disdain of digital I am not alone. Almost all my older colleagues still cling to paper diaries and quite a few younger ones do too – yet all of them seem oddly sheepish about it. I really can’t see why. To prefer something that is better-looking, faster, more reliable and which puts you firmly in control – where’s the shame in that?

My little purple Moleskine has only one drawback. If I lose it, I’m in trouble. I don’t have an answer to this, except that in practice it seldom happens. I have a genius for losing things in general, but have never lost my diary. It would be a sad coda to this otherwise conclusive column, if it turned out to be tempting providence. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)