Scratch Paper, Scrap Paper: Using Your Paper Again, and Again
20 March 2023 | 2:09 pm

Back in ancient times, social scientists shot down the common supposition that we would all be paperless by now. We’re using more paper than ever. As knowledge work grows, paper use grows; because paper is a tool for thinking, which is distinct from thinking with digital devices. (<<<< Lots of reasons for this, which are all beyond this scope of this humble blog post.)

But the production, distribution, and disposal of paper and electronic devices alike, scars the natural environment. As a human being I care about this; as a birdwatcher (I prefer the term “bird nerd”) I regularly see the damage of human consumption on the natural world.

As ONE lone human being, there is not a lot you can do individually, but you can do some things.

You can actually use what you buy.

You can get as much use as possible, out of the paper you bring into the house. (More on this, below!)

And depending on where you live, you can recycle the rest.

This is also good for your budget.

Flip Your Paper Over, to Double its Memory

You know what’s cool about paper?

Paper has two sides!

Unlike a written work on the internet, you can take writing that is on a piece of paper, flip the device, I mean, the piece of paper over, and re-use it again!

Wow! Try that, with your e-thingy!

Paper technology automagically gives you double the memory capacity. (Wouldn’t it be cool if you could flip over your laptop, and instantly double the storage?)

Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, does not use his nicer notebooks for scribbling down his initial writing ideas.

He saves paper he’s printed out, and then uses the back of it for what is called colloquially, “back of the napkin” ideas.

Yeah. Paper napkins, our cultural shorthand for geniusness on the fly*: Ding ding ding! Again, with the usefulness of paper! I’m telling you: paper is a multi-tool!

Of course you can also print both sides of your paper, but in some cases it’s more useful to print just one side. (I use paper notes for public speaking, and only print those on one side for delivering the speech. For other uses, I do print the paper on both sides.)

Storing Your Scrap Paper

Scratch paper, scrap paper, whatever you call it, it’s good to keep it on hand.

It’s also good to designate a place, or places, where your scratch paper lives.

I like to keep mine in a couple of sizes.

Full-size letter-size scrap paper lives in the same bin I use for my clean printer paper:

an arrow points to a folder labeled scrap paper, inside the bin

Scrap paper that I have cut up, and index cards that I’m going to re-use to write on the backs of, live in this little desk tools sorter:

an arrow points to a slot filled with cut-up pieces of paper

Paper is Your Multi-Tasking Multi-Tool

Obviously you can use paper for your own “back of the napkin” thinking: jotting down a list, drafting a timeline, creating a mindmap.

Other uses:

Cut paper up to use for reminder slips for your tickler file. I also use the backs of index cards, and the backs of memo pad paper for this.

Trade with a kid: give the child your scrap paper and some crayons, and get your phone back.

Even better: put the phone away, share the crayons (as possible), and draw together.

Clean up your custom rubber stamps by pressing them onto a clean, damp sponge, and then stamping a piece of scrap paper until the ink is cleared off.

Shred used paper for guinea pig bedding or package packing material, if you must shred paper at home.

Cut out some paper snowflakes.

Draw some demons.

The possibilities with paper are endless.

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Wondering how to manage your paper-based or hybrid paper-digital systems? Ask me a question.


* Spoiler alert for Glass Onion: the plot turns on notes scribbled on the back of a paper napkin.


Burkeman, O. (2023) Webinar: ‘Designing Your System for Creativity’, 11-12 March.

Havron, A. ‘Draw Your Demons’ (2023), 3 March. Available at: (Accessed: 20 March 2023).

Reader Question 1: Paper as a Read Later App?
15 March 2023 | 4:25 pm

How exciting! Someone has asked me a question! Here it is:

“Do you ever print online articles on paper, and read them later? I am seeking to reduce screens in my life because of a combination of eye strain and distractions. I’ve been wondering if maybe it’s worth trying to print off articles for reading?”

Yes! I think it’s always worth trying something; it’s the only way you’ll know if something works. (One of the hazards of being an armchair philosopher is that I personally spend too much time speculating over questions that are best answered through action… but that’s me.)

But will printing articles on paper to read later, work for you?

It depends.

And, first things first: If you have noticed any changes in your vision, if it’s uncomfortable for you to read, go make an appointment right now with your medical provider to get your eyes checked, and don’t delay. Vision changes can mean a lot of things; get this checked out.

(Side note: I am typing this while wearing my new glasses. So much better.)

After the medicos have their say, let’s consider when you might prefer to keep an article in a “read it later” app like Pocket or Feedly (or keep a PDF in your own digital files) and when would you want to print something out to read on paper?

Why — and how — do you want to read an article?

And what do you plan to do with it, next?

When to Keep Articles on a Screen: Don’t Fix What Ain’t Broke

Are you already productive with articles on a screen? Are you getting done what you want, without the time and expense of printing them out, and the maintenance of sorting, storing, and decluttering physical papers?

If, for example, you are successfully using your read later app as part of a work flow which is digital: you are highlighting the article on screen, you are using another app to record your useful insights from it — and this process is focused, smooth, and productive for you — I see no need to print the article out.

Or, it might be something you’re scrolling through, skimming for information or entertainment. Maybe you keep a pocket notebook and jot something down from the article on your screen. But again, if that’s working for you, no need to bother with printing the article itself.

As my pragmatic New England grandfather would say: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

But maybe, reading on a screen for you is kind of broken. Maybe screens feel like they are getting in your way.

And there are lots of reasons why people might prefer reading with paper:

Reasons to Print Articles to Read Them Later

  • Focus and Attention: you’re too distracted reading on a screen, because it’s too easy to jump to something else
  • Slowing Down: you want to read something rich and a little more challenging for personal pleasure; like poetry, or a thought-provoking essay, and paper helps you slow down
  • Separating Personal Life from Work Life: you want to read something for leisure, and screens just remind you of work
  • Writing by Hand: you want to make handwritten notes on the article rather than use an annotation app
  • Personal Reference Library: you want to keep a printed article for reference, or for instructions (I printed myself an article about how to cut out a six-sided paper snowflake; I use that every winter)
  • Digital Sabbath: you are deliberately setting aside time apart from screens, like observing a screen-free Saturday
  • Privacy Concerns: you don’t want Google or Amazon or Meta or reading apps to own data about what you’re highlighting and annotating
  • Digital Rights Concerns: you don’t want The Cloud to zap your reading material away

You notice what I didn’t say up there?

I didn’t say that it’s easier on your eyes to read from paper.

Is It Easier on Your Eyes to Read from Screens, or from Paper?

It depends.

That’s something for you to experiment with, and maybe also to talk with medical folks or occupational therapists about, if you have challenges like low vision, for example.

I read most books on my e-reader (a Kindle) in part because a) it’s easy to manage physically and comes with its own built-in lighting, and b) I can make the font bigger at will. That’s not nothing.

A fraction of my books, I also buy as paper. Those are my “keepers”: books I want to keep as reference books, and some books I know I’ll want to reread. I also prefer to read poetry on paper, because I want no digital distractions. And art and design books, for me, are always on paper.

Reading from paper means you will have to do more with your physical environment. Paper takes up a lot more physical space than a phone or a tablet, and it requires more accessories.

You probably will have to arrange your physical environment to read comfortably with paper. (More on that below.)

You will definitely also have to set up a system to manage your paper, so it doesn’t become clutter. (More on this below, as well.)

Let’s say you find that reading articles on paper is more comfortable or useful for you.

What’s next: managing these tangible objects, that you are now printing into your life and environment.

Office Supplies You Need to Print Articles

Obviously, you’ll need paper.

You’re also going to need a good, reliable, heavy-duty stapler. (I like a nice chonky Swingline desk stapler — they are tough, and don’t need specialty staples.)

Read later apps are digital storage bins. So for analog, you’ll need a physical storage bin to hold the articles you print, until you get around to reading them. You can store your paper articles in a folder, a basket, a box, a tote bag; and that becomes your read-it-later bin.

You might also want a 3-ring binder to store articles in — I do this when I’m reading outdoors. (And of course, a 3-ring binder means you’ll also need a hole puncher.)

Pens, pencils, highlighters. What’s the fun of printing out an article if you can’t highlight stuff for your commonplace book, and scribble comments in the margins?

And yes: you’ll need a printer.

If you print a lot, I recommend investing in a laser printer because it can save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars in ink.

Do a cost comparison.

Laser printers initially cost more, and the toner cartridges cost more, but they will print thousands of pages from one toner cartridge. If you print a lot, the cost of ownership for a laser printer is much less than ink jet printers.

I hate ink jet printers as much as I hate home office shredders. I’m sure I’ll be ranting, I mean, posting about printers someday.

Make Yourself Comfortable, for Reading Your Printed Articles

You know how, with a phone, you can just stand around and scroll? Or even walk slowly, and scroll?

Try that with an eight-page printed article. No, don’t.

Phones and tablets and e-readers come with lighting, and the whole article lives on one physical device. You’re managing one phone; not six or seven sheets of paper fluttering around.

It is hard to read paper articles like we read from phones or even tablets.

If you’re reading paper, you need to set things up so you can do so comfortably.

Start with good lighting, of course.

Perhaps a chair, a table or lap desk, maybe some writing materials handy for highlighting and note-making.

You might need reading glasses.

And even if you don’t, you might still want a magnifying glass.


Because there is no touchscreen zoom function on paper!

You cannot touch paper with your fingers and expand anything. I’ve tried that, before I realized what I was doing and had a good laugh at myself. Trust me, it never works.

I, personally, also like to read with cats around. Bonus: sometimes they sprawl on top of my paper articles, which is perhaps sort of a mysterious feline analog curation function. (Or not.)

Here is the reading and journaling corner in my office, with the Analog Office staff hard at work:

photo collage of two cats lying around being cute, but useless

Reading Paper Articles Outdoors

You know that thing where you go outdoors, and something invisible pushes you around in weird ways?

They call that a “breeze,” I think.

Again, something that is not an issue with a phone or tablet; but something to keep in mind with reading paper articles.

I like using a slim 3-ring binder for reading articles outdoors, or away from home.

A 3-ring binder can also sub for a lap desk. Stick a pen and highlighter in the pocket of the binder, and you’re good to go.

If I know I’m going to be waiting around somewhere — a doctor’s office, a car repair shop — a 3-ring binder is a good way to organize articles to read, and write on, away from home.

You NEEEED A Functional Paper Flow System: Don’t Print, Without a Plan!

Read later apps are article storage bins, and they are also digital filing systems - you can organize articles in them. They also have a trash can: a way to delete articles you no longer need.

If you’re going analog, you need to have analogous (ha ha, pun intended) systems to manage your documents, and you cannot leave your documents unmanaged as easily as you can with an app.

Let me share a secret with you: Paper keeps professional organizers in business.

Paper must be managed, because it can become surprisingly dangerous: it is a tangible, physical object that is capable of holding FOMO information (articles, news, history), holding intense emotional content (letters, journals, sketchbooks), being the means by which we prove our identity (birth certificates, citizenship papers), and by which we prove ownership of valuable resources (financial statements, deeds, titles, receipts).

People really struggle with disposing of paper, whether it’s books, articles, magazines, newspapers, children’s school papers, etc.

At the extreme end, when you see people struggling with hoarding (a complex problem that is both hidden, and more common than is publicly evident), paper is one of the main materials saved.

Too much paper is, literally, a fire hazard. Too much paper can attract insects and rodents. Too much paper can literally destroy buildings: the weight of it can collapse floors.

Paper is one of the hardest physical objects to manage because it is incredibly versatile, it evokes all kinds of emotions around our identity and what we think we “should” know and do and have, and storing it can be surprisingly complex (for example, do a search for “best” filing system).

Paper gets out of control, real easy.

And we don’t want that.

So you need to have a plan for how you are going to manage the paper articles you print.

You can keep thousands of articles in a read later app and it will not mess up your living space. You CANNOT mindlessly keep equivalent numbers of paper articles, without a system to manage them.

If you don’t have a plan to manage your paper, it wins every time. It’s that sneaky.

The key decisions?

Putting limits on how much you keep, and being really clear about how and when you get rid of the excess.

Here are some key principles to live comfortably and happily with paper articles in your home:

Containers Are Your Limits, for Timeless Read-it-Later Articles

Limit the amount of physical space that you will dedicate to papers to read later.

Pick out a container to store articles you plan to read that you don’t have a deadline for, or that have information that won’t be outdated too soon: find a folder, a basket, a box. When that container is full, that’s your limit.

If you print out another article, you have to discard one from your read it later bin. (Think of it as a game.)

Set Discard Dates for Articles That Have Information That Will Expire

If you are planning to read articles that record time-sensitive information like news and events, figure out when and how you’ll get rid of them.

We get a local paper newspaper, in part because we don’t want to read everything on a screen.

Today, I got the newspaper. At the end of the day, today’s newspaper will go into the recycle bin.

I will discard it whether I’ve read it, or not. Nobody is paying me to read the paper today; nothing depends on my reading the paper today, if something is truly relevant to me, I will hear about it from other sources.

If I haven’t gotten around to reading, oh well.

When today is over, that’s my cue to move the paper into the recycling bin. It’s literally old news. It’s expired, like that poor forgotten slimy parsley in the back of the refrigerator bin.

I’ll get another newspaper, tomorrow. It can sit in my house waiting to be read, until tomorrow evening. Then I discard it.

I am not a historian, I’m not an archivist, my house is not a library, my house is not a museum, my house is where I LIVE.

I need the square footage to do fun stuff, not to pile it up with a bunch of outdated papers that do not serve me or my family well.

Have a Way to File Articles You Insist on Keeping

Hey, I keep articles on paper. But I also have a filing system for them. I have not written about ways to file reference material yet, but am planning to.

In the meantime, if you plan to keep a printed article, devise a way to store it so you can retrieve it again when you want it.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

And: happy reading, however it works best for you.

Copy and share – the link is here. Never miss a post from the Analog Office! Subscribe here to get blog posts via email.

Wondering how to manage your paper-based or hybrid paper-digital systems? Ask me a question.


Shlain, T. (2019) 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week. Reprint edition. Gallery Books.

NPR (2009) ‘Amazon’s “1984” Deletion From Kindle Examined’, NPR, 24 July. Available at: (Accessed: 14 March 2023).

From Piles to Files: Tracking Workflow Status With Current, Future, Pending Trays
8 March 2023 | 2:34 pm

A good filing system records your decisions about what you plan to do next with a given document.

You win the filing game by labeling documents so that you know exactly what you are going to do next with whatever is in them, without your having to open the file to read anything inside.

Many people sort documents related to where they are in the work process; by their status.

In his excellent book The Organised* Writer, author Antony Johnston recommends setting up desk trays labeled “Inbox,” “Current,” “Future,” and “Pending”… for his writing projects. (<<< important specification)

He labels his desk trays with these status labels — they tell you what the status is, of something you are working on:

  • Inbox (unsorted documents you need to decide what to do with, what happens next with them)

  • Current (documents related to projects you are working on right now)

  • Future (documents you plan to work on soon)

  • Pending (documents you can’t work on for now, until something else happens — for example, you’re waiting for someone to get back to you with information you need)

We might also label desk trays with status names like the ones in Kanban systems:

  • To Do

  • Doing

  • Blocked

  • Done

Status labels record your decisions about where your documents are, in your work process.

Status Filing: Here Be Dragons

What’s the hazard with these?

Status trays can easily become de facto inboxes: undifferentiated piles of paper that you have to read over and over again, to figure out what they mean for your workload.

Status trays work best when everything in them is similar; when you have multiple projects that are the same kind of project. This way, you’re not shifting contexts all the time.

For Johnston, a professional writer, his status desk trays are how he tracks what’s going on with his various writing projects — but, at least from his description in the book, he is not also piling personal projects, non-work-related projects, in his status trays.

For me, working from a home office with a day job that is wildly varied, I do not have dozens of similar projects. For me, status trays would leave me with undifferentiated piles of bills, package tracking receipts, work-related projects, brochures, and so forth. I would have to re-evaluate each piece of paper individually to know what to do with it; I would be shifting contexts all day.

This is why I use action files, instead of status trays, naming the files with verbs like “to call,” “to scan,” “to review” so that I immediately know what to do with them next.

This is also why I use trays to store materials for individual active projects rather than by status.

I would not be able to glance at a tray labeled “Current” or “Pending” and know exactly what kind of work awaits me in there. I don’t have dozens of similar projects; I have a handful of dissimilar actions.

This is the key, in organizing your work.

You win the filing game by setting up the kind of system that tells you what you need to do next with a document, without having to re-read it to figure that out.

If you’re working on a lot of similar projects, status trays can be really helpful. If you’re not, action files might work better for you.

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* The author is British, so he spells “organized” with an “s.” Being American, I spell it with a “z.” Another American, Mark Twain, claimed to have no respect for people who could only spell a word one way.


Johnston, A. (2020) The organised writer: how to stay on top of all your projects and never miss a deadline. Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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