Category Archives: creativity

Why Analog Beats Digital for Focusing Your Mind and Getting in the Zone

When it comes to focusing your mind and getting in the zone, a paper-based productivity system is more effective than a digital solution. With so many digital apps to choose from in our high-tech world, it might be hard to believe that a paper planner or everyday notebook is all you really need to create your ideal day.

Among the popular productivity apps are Things, Omnifocus, Todoist and Evernote. Highly recommended web-based applications that facilitate team collaboration include Asana, Basecamp, Trello and Nozbe. Digital devices like your smartphone are also good for setting timers and reminder alerts.

A paper-based productivity system lacks certain features that make it hard to do away with digital technology. But putting pen to paper is a tried-and-true method for maximizing focus, staying on task, and taking steps toward achieving long-term objectives. For personal productivity, analog beats digital in several ways.

1. Reduces overcommitment 

According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Flow is complete absorption in what one does and is often referred to as being in the zone.

Digital apps – due to their sheer efficiency – make you more susceptible to overextending your to-do list and striving to do too much with limited time, energy and attention.  Work overload can lead to high stress, chronic fatigue, health problems, and burnout.

Having finite space in a paper planner and writing by hand create inconvenience that, in the long run, raises productivity. You need to prioritize well to fit your list of most important tasks and responsibilities on the page. Instead of pushing yourself to do more than what is humanly possible, you get to carefully choose what you can realistically accomplish.

The analog approach makes it easier to gain clarity on your goals and stay connected with your decisions. A smaller, curated list of priorities helps you to focus your attention and reach a state of flow.

2. Encourages deliberate review

While a digital tool can make automatic updates and allow drag and drop, paper planning forces you to manually migrate unfinished tasks to another day.  Analog tools increase your awareness of when you’re procrastinating or planning poorly.

Handwriting involves more conscious effort to postpone start dates, reschedule meetings and reallocate time slots for activities. As a result, the analog method prompts you to quit delaying tasks that need to get done or drop insignificant ones that aren’t worth your time.

An analog productivity system not only allows you to organize the present and plan for the future, but also keeps a record of your past.  Flipping through pages tends to be a more pleasant tactile experience than scrolling through to review your progress and accomplishments and reflect on struggles and challenges. Compared to swiping, tapping and staring into a screen, reviewing your paper planner is more relaxing and meditative.

3. Improves learning and retention

The physical act of writing down your priorities, goals and commitments on paper make them more real and memorable.  Recording your observations and ideas in a notebook brings calm, joy and presence that cannot be replicated when typing into a digital app.

Studies show that using pen and paper, not a laptop or tablet, helps you to amp up your brainpower, extrapolate thoughts, retain and interpret concepts, and recall key information. In their research article, The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, professors Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer concluded that laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than process information and reframe it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

If you want to be an active participant and mindful listener at a meeting, workshop, conference or lecture, you’re better off with analog tools than with digital solutions.

4. Blocks out distractions

Unlike digital apps, a paper planner cannot ping you with appointment reminders and to-do alerts. But this disadvantage is also what gives analog an edge over digital. When you get on your smartphone or computer to organize your day, you have ready access to online articles, videos, social media, text messages, emails, and other distractions that you do not have with analog systems. Navigating digital productivity tools often leads to distractions that fuels ineffective multitasking and reduces steady, focused progress on your most important tasks.

A paper planner encourages you to single task and stay with one important thing until you are finished or at least until you have made significant progress. The analog method doesn’t require special apps to block out time-sucking websites and social media when you need to think and work deeply.  It doesn’t come with inherent distractions to steal your time and attention whenever you feel frustrated or bored with a project.

Intense concentration on one appropriately challenging task gets you in the zone.  Analog tools encourage you to focus on one priority at a time, rather than switch from one shiny new object to another.

5. Provides simplicity

Different apps serve different purposes, such as calendaring events, scheduling appointments, and making to-do lists. There are hundreds of digital apps to choose from and updated versions being released constantly. You also have to be tech-savvy and patient enough to learn how to use the features.

With good old fashioned pen and paper, you spare yourself from the complexities involved in a digital productivity system. Paper planners provide a simpler, easy-to-use, multifunctional alternative. You could have one main notebook to serve all your planning needs. A smaller travel notebook may be kept for capturing information on the go.

You could try highly popular planners such as the Bullet Journal Notebook, LEUCHTTURM 1917, the Moleskine Classic Hard Cover 2019 12 Month Daily Planner, the Self Journal (13-week layout), and Michael Hyatt’s Full Focus Planner (90-day planner), or even the less trendy At-A-Glance Daily Planner – Plan.Write.Remember (which I chose for listing to-dos, setting priorities, tracking time, recording activities, and calendaring appointments, meetings and events in 2019).

Things that I look for in a planner are single-day pages that include an hour-by-hour calendar to record activities and events, a section to list my top priorities or to-dos, and space to make note of highlights and challenges. You might want different things, such as inspirational quotes, a designated area for goal review, or undated pages that give you more flexibility. Choose a planner that you will actually use and meets your specific requirements.

Analog to-do list systems that you can adopt include Ryder Caroll’s Bullet Journal Method, Chris Kyle’s Strikethru and the decades-old Ivy Lee Method. You may also create your own method or modify existing ones to suit your personal preferences and needs.

For instance, while I don’t subscribe to the entire Bullet Journal system, I like its use of symbols (e.g. events are marked with an open circle “O” bullet) and signifiers (e.g. priority is marked with an asterisk * to the left of the bullet).  Symbols visually characterize the entries and signifiers give them additional context (e.g. *O Call Tom to follow up on business proposal.)

Hybrid Approach usually works best, but full analog beats full digital for personal productivity

Digital solutions offer advantages that analog tools do not. They make information searchable, shareable, easier to organize and reorganize, and available for backup storage. They also provide automatic alerts on meetings, deadlines and other time-sensitive events.

A hybrid approach that combines digital and analog offers the best of both worlds. Personally, I use an online calendar and my iPhone to calendar events, set appointments and schedule meetings. I like to use them as backup systems with auto alerts. The information also goes into my paper planner, which I use daily.

To stay on track with daily must-dos, reserve time blocks for specific tasks, and make steady progress on big projects, I rely more heavily on the analog approach. If I had to choose between the two, I would go with full analog, not full digital, to plan a productive day.

A paper planner encourages you to do daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly reviews (purposefully), while digital information is more out of sight, out of mind. Digital apps also pull you toward mindless distractions and trivial options that waste your time.

Overall, analog beats digital when you need to focus your mind, keep on track with important tasks, and get in the zone while working on your highest priorities.

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Photo by: Nietjuh

How to cultivate gratitude

Expressing thanks to others, appreciating your accomplishments, and being grateful in every moment are vital wellness habits. They need to be honed, practiced and repeated daily. They do not come naturally in our hyperconnected world — where comparing and competing often take precedence over cultivating self-worth and personal excellence.

Thanksgiving is a national day in the United States celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.  It is one of my favorite holidays even though I did not grow up here as a child and did not really begin to appreciate it until well into my adulthood.

Whether you celebrate this holiday or not,  you can take a day (schedule it if you must) to take stock of your life and reflect on what you are truly thankful for.

Dig deep in the positives

Family, friends, community, health, home, and life itself are some of the most common short answers to the question, what are you grateful for? While these do bring out feelings of gratitude, you will benefit from digging deeper. Engage in higher-level appreciation by noticing the unique attributes of your favorite person or prized possession that are easily taken for granted or overlooked.

Why do you turn to a particular friend when faced with a personal crisis?

Which quality do you appreciate most about your life partner? 

What special thing does your child do that melts your heart every time he does it? 

Why is having good health so important to you? 

How does your home bring you comfort and  a sense of security? 

As you explore and discover what you treasure most, you build knowledge and insights into how to create more of it in your life. Feeling deep gratitude and offering a sincere thank you will help call in the interaction, experience or thing you desire most, again and again.

Gain perspective on the negatives

After you have exhausted your list of big positives and major wins, dare to reflect on the first three losses, challenges or negative experiences that immediately come  to mind. What was it about them that floored you,  outmatched your grit, or tested your patience?

You don’t have to be grateful for them. You’re not going to be thankful for needing to euthanize your pet, staying up to finish a project you put off close to the deadline, continuing to watch a crappy movie just because you paid for it, or getting your car stuck in a ditch in a heavy snowstorm.

But with the passage of time and a different perspective, you can acknowledge the lessons learned and the actions you took to solve the problem and improve the situation. While the experience itself might never be met with gratitude, it can make you a more courageous person and empathetic human being when you stay open to the results.

Notice the small great things in your daily experience

Even when you get to the end of the day with nothing much to show for it — in terms of goals accomplished, major tasks completed, or big changes made — you can always have a moment of gratitude. All you need to do is pay attention to the little things that seem inconsequential but add up to make a good life.

It might be the neighbor who cleared snow from the sidewalk outside your home while he was ploughing his own space. It could be the barista greeting you with a genuine smile and remembering your name when you stop in for your regular caffeine dose. Maybe it’s the courteous driver who used his turn signal, checked his blind spot, and moved into your lane well ahead of you, instead of cutting you off. Or perhaps it’s your kindergartener giving you a hug every time she parts from you at the school bus stop.

Keep track of the small moments that bring a smile to your face. Practicing daily gratitude goes a long way in cultivating it for the long term, no matter the countless times you get angry, feel sad, or face disappointment.

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Photo by: pixel2013

3 Simple Steps to Build Habits that Stick

Following through on new year’s resolutions,  heading in the right direction, meeting goals, or making creative shifts requires the ability to build sustainable, congruent habits. While self-discipline, willpower and a growth mindset all play a role in making your dreams and wishes come true,  it’s habit formation that makes the process easier.

A habit is an automatic tendency, behavior or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.  It is formed through regular repetition and is a natural consequence of how the human brain works. Healthy habits keep you on the path of worthwhile pursuits, despite obstacles and setbacks.

Whether you seek to finish an innovative project, make time for daily exercise, develop an essential skill or just get more sleep,  you will benefit from building habits that trigger positive change and continuous progress.

Follow these 3 simple steps to build habits that stick: 

1. Start small. Having Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) can be highly motivating, but moving toward them often involves taking incremental steps. Likewise, to implement a new behavior that you want to become a habit, start with a small, doable action from which you can build momentum. As Leo Babauta of Zen Habits says, “Make it so easy you can’t say no.”

Need to create a writing habit that will help you complete your sci-fi novel and become a published author? To start, you could commit to writing a page or for 15 minutes each morning. Then, after this becomes ingrained, add another page or an additional 15 minutes. Keep building on the practice until you’re up to a chapter or two-hour writing blocks a day (or whatever maximum you can handle).

Start with super small actions that you can expand upon as they become habitual or routinized. Your forcing yourself to write a chapter or for two hours, right off the bat, won’t work. Instead, you’ll likely find yourself checking emails, updating your social media posts, scrolling through online news feeds or giving in to other distractions to alleviate tension or boredom.

Depending on who you ask, it usually takes 21 days, 28 days or 30 days, to form a new habit. In one 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, a University College London research team found that it takes an average of 66 days until an action becomes automatic.

The researchers recruited  96 participants (a statistically insignificant number) who were interested in forming a new habit such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or doing a 15-minute run each day. Participants were then asked daily whether their behavior was “hard not to do”or could be done “without thinking.” The study found that on average, the “plateau of automaticity” was reached after 66 days.

Despite the research studies, there is no magic number of days to form a habit. Some behaviors are harder to adopt than others. It’s much easier to write an article than to finish a whole book. Eating a salad for lunch each day is less challenging than completing a daily, one-hour workout at the gym.

For most people – no matter how long it takes to form a habit – starting with a small action is more effective than going for bold changes at the outset. In Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, Jon Acuff suggests you cut your goal in half or double the timeline to avoid the perfectionist, now-or-never mentality that stops follow-through.

To incorporate mindfulness meditation into my evening routine, I started with 15 minutes.  To implement a tai chi practice into my morning rituals, I began with just 10 minutes. Shooting for 30 minutes or 1 hour would have led to failure in making them into daily habits. A regular practice, even for a minimal amount of time, provides significant benefits that I would not otherwise get if I didn’t do it at all.

Lower the bar and reduce your expectations if you’re having trouble making consistent, lasting progress. Set yourself up for success by taking small actions you can readily accomplish and will give increase your sense of control.

2. State your “if-then” plans.  Positive thinking helps you learn from failures and recover from setbacks. But it’s not enough to get you where you want to be, as  Gabriele Oettingen, psychology professor and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking,  Inside the New Science of Motivation, points out.

Oettingen discusses a four-step process called WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) to  think about potential obstacles, contrast them with your dreams and goals, and design a plan to overcome them to attain preferred outcomes.

In one research article, Oettingen and her colleague, Peter Gollwitzer, explain that making if-then statements is a powerful way to create a desired future behavior or outcome. They state, “While goal intentions (goals) have the structure ‘I intend to reach Z!’ with Z relating to a desired future behavior or outcome, implementation intentions have the structure ‘If situation X is encountered, then I will perform the goal-directed response Y!'”

Using an if-then format, you specify plans on where, when and how you want to act  in certain situations. Oettingen and Gollwitzer note, “For instance, a person with the goal to reduce alcohol consumption might form the following implementation intention: ‘And whenever a waiter suggests ordering a second drink, then I’ll ask for mineral water!'” This helps to close the gap between having goals and reaching them.

If-then statements establish patterns that prompt healthy behaviors and responses to specific situations. They are based on critical cues (opportunities or obstacles), such as your emotional state, the time, your location/environment, and the preceding action, which are linked to the goal-directed response.

When faced with the critical cue, you have a pre-planned, automatic (habitual) response to deal with it. For example, instead of telling yourself “I will get enough sleep everyday,” you could say, “If it’s 9:30 p.m., I’ll start winding down to go to bed by 10 p.m.” Rather than commit to “I will maintain a clutter-free home,” you could specify, “After dinner, I’ll clear out the junk mail.”

Oettingen has a related WOOP app designed to help you fulfill your wishes and change your habits with if-then plans. The process is based on environmental triggers and current routines you can use to build a new habit or to add to an existing one.

3. Suck at it.  Don’t be in a rush to become an expert or a master; embrace the beginner’s mind, in which there are many possibilities and nothing is all figured out. If you miss a day or two of taking an action that you want to become a daily habit, just get back to it.  No need to count this as a break in your streak.

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg states, “Some habits yield easily to analysis and influence. Others are more complex and obstinate, and require prolonged study. And for others, change is a process that never fully concludes. But that doesn’t mean it can’t occur.”

Even when you fall short of your ideal behavior or preferred outcome, getting things right 5%, 20% or 50% of the time is overall better than 0%. By cutting yourself some slack, you get to continue your efforts rather than abandon them at the first slip-up.

Over time, and with sustained effort, you can make better informed decisions on whether to continue the action or habit. If it’s not truly purposeful or enjoyable, you can not only suck at it, but you can give it up altogether.

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If you have trouble fulfilling resolutions or achieving goals, try these 3 simple steps to build habits that stick and will help you make sustainable progress without beating yourself up.

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