Technology plays a critical role in how we work. Cell phones, apps, laptops, and collaboration technology have all but replaced older ways of working.

Here’s an interesting situation that happened to me recently, though, that has me rethinking how quickly I completely abandon old methods. It also turns out there’s science behind it.

Binder on the highway

The other day, I led a long, full day meeting with an executive team. The meeting went great, the team made a lot of important decisions, and there were lots of next steps I had noted diligently in my notebook.

Then after 12 hours of hard work, I got in the car to drive home only to forget that I had left my notebook on top of the car with the banana I was so excited to eat. I looked in my rear view mirror in a panic as the notebook flew off the car on a crowded major highway.

Feeling like I was in a bad TV commercial, I pulled over immediately and tried to remember the notes I had taken. To my surprise, I remembered almost everything.

To be honest, I don’t have a photographic memory, and these days my memory isn’t as good as it used to be now that I have multiple children under three wreaking havoc with my sleep schedule.

It turns out that my ability to remember all of that information might have simply been because I took the notes with a pen and paper instead of using my laptop. Sound crazy?

Recent research studies have found that my situation isn’t unique. Here’s the research and why it might change your thinking around some modern technology at work.

The research

The research was conducted with college students. Some were allowed to take notes during a lecture on a laptop and others had to go old school and write with a pen.

Surprisingly, the students who took notes with pen and paper remembered far more than their peers who had a laptop.

In addition, in a follow up scenario, both sets of students were allowed to go back to their notes and use them as cheat sheets when asked to talk about the key points from the lecture. In this case also, the students who wrote notes with pen and paper did better.

So what was happening?

First and most obviously, those with laptops were tempted to do other things on the computer which simply wasn’t an option for the pen and paper group. By default, the pen and paper crowd was listening more intently to the lecture.

In addition, there was a surprising correlation between how much the students wrote down and how much they remembered, and it was the reverse of what you might think.

The laptop group had much more detailed notes. They could keep up better simply because you can type faster than you can write. More words didn’t translate into better retention, though. They spent less time really thinking about the words and more time trying to type verbatim what they heard.

The pen and paper group, on the other hand, wrote down far less but had to think about what they were choosing to write. It turns out that act of thinking about what was being written was a key part of the way the information got absorbed better into their brains.

Business implications

You could make a case that our laptop might be causing us to remember less of our important discussions in meetings.

Here’s everything working against you:

No matter how disciplined you are, it is really hard to not check e-mail when you have it open on your laptop.

At the same time, many of us still try to “multi-task” during meetings while listening to whatever is being discussed. The science tells us that we literally can’t listen to one person while doing another form of communication at the same time on our laptopĀ (kind of like trying to listen to a conference call while writing an e-mail).

Even if you are a great corporate citizen who commits none of those sins and is trying to diligently take good notes on your laptop, ironically you might be noting too much.

What’s the solution?

There isn’t a magic bullet here, but one executive leadership team I work with just implemented a “No laptops and cell phones” rule during meetings.

It may seem a bit Draconian, but it was amazing how fast the depth of conversation and retention went up from one meeting to the next. It’s not a bad case study.