The Things That Define Us (Words and Work)

Amore for Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres

For the love of a glue… and some bits of paper: laudable life companions. 

1970: Spencer Silver did not know how the moderately sticky substance could be used.  After all, he was trying to develop a very tacky bonding agent…  not a weak, yet reusable glue recipe.  Or, to be more exact, a pressure sensitive adhesive. 

The accidental beginning of the Post-It note.

And before we review the life changing properties of this chemical revelation, here the a brief timeline of the fortuitous founding:

  • 1970:  Patent filed for special glue (as we already covered).  
  • 1974:  Art Fry (colleague of Spencer) takes said glue and adds paper to mark hymnal pages.
  • 1974:  Art convinces co-workers of its magic by applying it to scrap yellow paper (the only color available in the office, at the time). 
  • 1977:  3M (Spencer and Art’s paycheck) launches Place-and-Peel
  • 1977.5:  Place and Peel is a flop. 
  • 1978:  Turns out, the name might have been the problem.
  • 1979:  Post-it notes are officially launched nationally. 
  • 1980:  Hymnals, periodicals, and non-fiction best-selling books begin to grow unusual yellow fungus from page edges.
  • 1985: Coca-cola releases “New Coke” (clearly, not related)
  • 1994: Stickies, a software version of Post-it notes is developed by Apple
  • 1997:  3M’s patent expires, but society has uniformly adopted the name “Post-It” as it had “Kleenex”
  • Today: Post-It notes and related products pull in about $1 Billion annually or 20% of the 3M’s business.

…history lesson over. 

Today, there is no imminent danger to 3M’s billion-dollar business.  However, as we begin to find ourselves moving towards a fully digital culture in our business and personal lives, there is a need to make the case again for the little yellow (or pink, or blue, or orange) pad. 

To state the obvious, Post-It notes are not spiral-bound notebooks.  You cannot write a novel on a Post-It.  You cannot keep your monthly calendar in a deck of sticky notes.  You shouldn’t use a Post-It as a birthday or anniversary card. 

Post-Its are messy.  They are temporary.  As soon as they are scribbled on and applied to, they wave a brightly waiving flag of incompleteness.  They are a glowing yellow highlighter of something undone, something to-do, or something still on our mind. 

As the little square note hangs around, its tattered edges and sullied glue strip demonstrates that time has passed, and yet our well-intended reminder still lingers.  It is a physical sign of our imperfection and our life as work-in-progress.  And all of this is what makes the physical Post-It so wonderfully useful today. 

To avoid becoming too existential on our interaction with paper and glue, some practical proposals…

Over the past few decades, we have come up with thousands of uses for the little squares, tabs, and flags (if you need some new ideas, 3M will gladly help), but a just few examples might accentuate their material benefit over today’s digital counterparts.  

Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant will all happily remind you to take out your trash, to pick up the kids at dance, or to call your spouse to remind him to pick up the kids.  Similarly these same reminders can be easily typed into our calendars, or stored on our Evernote or Reminders app. 

Any of these prompts, however, swiftly merge into the stream of our digital lives, and their meaning and urgency is immediately diluted by the torrent of surrounding meetings, notes and emails.  While the digital cloud provides portability, it surely lacks personality. 

Hand-written notes help remind us of our frame of mind.  They relay the urgency, playfulness, or precision in the request of our future self.  Placing these helpful memos outside the continual messaging of our phones and computers keeps us more alert to their significance and a need to act, not just read

Sticky pads excel at a call-to-action. Keep them handy at work, and take notes on them from phone calls, transcribe email requests, and update current project management dates.  Stick them to your monitor.  Fasten them to your phone (or cell phone).  Place them on the door to your office so you see them when you come in or leave.  The idea is that their presence becomes, just slightly, uncomfortable.  Once the task is complete, once the job is done, you can remove the friendly flag.  Consider them your personal office ‘trainer.’ 

Fifteen years ago, many of us might have found our desks, doors and datebooks overflowing with the little banners to the point of over-messaging and under-productiveness.  However, with our new overreliance on the cloud’s information storm, a few brightly colored squares forced into our line-of-sight can have a commanding affect. 

And it is personal productivity (and the where working with Post-It can make the most significant impact.  Many articles have been written about the email culture, which is slowing our efficiency, impeding our thoughts, and generally wasting our time.  Most of us start our day by opening our inbox and hacking away at the always-growing to-do list that our emails have become for us.  We rarely choose the order of our tasks (if we choose the tasks at all), and often find ourselves having made no progress on our intended goals and projects.  It is as if we are weeding a farm of dandelions. 

Of course, there are many productivity apps that promise to organize your day away from your email.  The ostensible advantage for many of them, like Evernote and Basecamp, is their ability to tie in our other digital lists, calendars and emails, making them ‘more effective.’  However, if it is the constant disruption of our digital communications that is the cause of our distraction, an added level of digitization may only increase our ineffectual hours.  

The solution is to start our workday distinctly apart from the litany of emails, texts, and meeting requests.  Before you open your inbox, spend ten minutes, and write out your own to-do list, on Post-It notes.  Writing them by hand will make you reflect briefly on each item and consider the steps to accomplish the task. 

If a task requires multiple steps to accomplish, add them.  You will find yourself with a few colored squares lined up on your desk.  The secret to success is to keep your list to two or three notes, maximum.  The goal is to create a list that can be accomplished in one day.  As you begin tackling your tasks, you get the physical joy of scratching them off.  And whereas a digital reminder is simply deleted, a Post-It rewards you by always presenting you with your progress.  And if the day’s tasks are particularly daunting, feel free to add a few friendly chores, like texting a friend to have coffee, and then quickly cross them off for an instant feeling of satisfaction. 

At the end of the day, if needed, you can take the little list with you.  Simply stick it onto your laptop as a physical reminder of what’s left to do. 

The next day, start again.  New list, new notes.  If tasks from the day before weren’t accomplished than re-write them (don’t keep the square from the day before).  The act of physically notating the day’s missions has a surprising impact and creates a new urgency with which reminders saved on our phones cannot compete. 

So, three cheers for acrylate copolymer microspheres.  At the young age of 46 years, its lifelong work may have a new purpose in our lives.  But just in case 3M can’t convince us, the Post-It has earned a new degree in Web Development