Category Archives: email management

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 digital distractions drain your productivity

Digital distractions can make you feel productive and responsive, when in fact you’re just engaging in mindless, insignificant tasks. While digital technology broadens your access to information, makes communication easier, and provides other advantages, it often pulls you away from your true priorities.

For the most part, productivity means getting the most important things done, efficiently and effectively, while feeling satisfied with your progress and cultivating personal freedom for yourself. With this in mind, here’s how digital distractions drain your productivity:

Weaken your focus muscle

Paying attention to the task at hand is required to start, tackle and complete it. The ubiquitous presence of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and 24/7 online access erodes your ability to fully attend to one thing, concentrate, and work through problems, especially when they’re complex and require deep thought.

In January 2017, the Pew Research Center released fact sheets showing about 77% of Americans own a smartphone; nearly 73% state they have broadband service at home; 69% of U.S. adults use social media; nearly eight-in-ten U.S. adults own a desktop or laptop computer; and about half own tablet computers.

With digital technology at your fingertips, quick answers and instant gratification are expected. Over time, without consistent training and regular exercise, your focus muscle weakens immensely. And when faced with a difficult problem or averse task that needs to get done, you’ll be more tempted to look to your digital devices for a quick fix.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex craves novelty. The dopamine high you get from checking emails, text messages, social media and other digital information creates a feedback loop that encourages you to lose focus and seek external stimulation. The effects are sub-par results, more mistakes, and a prioritization of low-value busy work over high-value intentional work.

Encourage the counterproductive practice of multitasking (switch tasking) 

Doing more than one thing at a time  – commonly known as multitasking – is often viewed as a strength and skill. Companies misguidedly expect their employees to prioritize multiple projects and manage two or four or six tasks at once.

Although technology allows different processes to occur simultaneously, the human brain processes only one thing at a time, sequentially. As a result, juggling two or more tasks at one time — especially when they each demand high focus — is counterproductive.

In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen point out the brain has a limited capacity to pay attention, which makes it impossible to focus on two or more completely unrelated tasks at the same time.

You can do multiple, related tasks toward one outcome, such as when you drive a car, make breakfast, or attend to other simple routines. You can also background task very well, such as watch a movie while you exercise on the treadmill or listen to classical music while you cook. But when it comes to high-attention tasks — such as replying to emails while participating in a conference call, or texting while listening to an audio book — the best you can do is switch between tasks at rapid speeds.

In a University of California – Irvine study, researchers found it takes, on average, up to 20 minutes to refocus on an activity after being interrupted by email or another minor distraction. Each time you divert your attention from one task to another, you add to the time it would otherwise take you to complete it.

As your brain takes in new information on the second task, your attention becomes scattered and you lose your primary focus on the first task.  You then have to catch up on the information you missed or the thought process you abandoned to fully get back to the first task. Plus, attention residue from a prior unfinished task affects your performance on the new task.

Even if you consider yourself a super multitasker, you are still more productive when you attend to one thing, take a break, and then move to the next.

Reduce your brain power

Strong cognitive abilities allow you to be truly productive in creative projects or high-value assignments.  In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, molecular biologist John Medina explains how digital distractions bombard the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for exercising willpower, goal-setting, decision-making, planning, making moral judgments, and carrying out other executive functions. He breaks down the process into four steps:

Step 1- shift alert. The prefrontal cortex acts a switchboard in alerting the brain to shift attention. Blood rushes to this region of the brain when you’re about to start working on task #1, such as writing a research paper.

Step 2 –  rule activation for task #1. This includes a two-part message. The first part is a search query to locate the neurons needed to carry out the task. The second part encodes a command to rouse the neurons, once found.

Step 3 – disengagement from task #1. While you’re working on task #1, there’s an interruption related to task #2, such as a text message from a friend. Because the rules for writing the research paper and replying to the text message are different, your brain has to disengage from task #1 before you can attend to task #2. Blood then rushes to the prefrontal cortex, alerting the brain to shift attention to the second task.

Step 4 – rule activation for task #2. The two-part message for rule activation to attend to task #2 is triggered. After the switch is completed, you may then address the second task.

Because these four steps have to occur in sequence each time you switch from one task to the next, your productivity dips when you give in to digital distractions.

Researchers found that persons who engage in heavier media-multitasking (i.e. toggle between many different websites, apps, programs or other digital stimuli) generally perform worse on cognitive control tasks and exhibit more socio-emotional difficulties. They tend to have less grey matter in certain parts of the brain, which serves to process information and is linked with intelligence, as well as thought and emotional control.

A neuroscientist at Stanford, Russel Poldrack, found that learning new information while being distracted causes the information to go the striatum (a region of the brain for storing new procedures and skills), but not to the hippocampus (a region of the brain for storing new facts and ideas, which makes information easier to recall or retrieve). In short, digital distractions negatively affect your memory.

Impair mental wellbeing

The constant stream of emails, instant messages, text messages, social media notifications, and online news produces information overload and mental fatigue. The fear of missing out (FOMO) keeps you hunched over your smartphone instead of attuned to the present.

Heavy media-multitasking, like switching from one app to the next, produces the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline.  One study found that smartphone overuse is linked to depression, anxiety and sleep problems.

In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle discusses how technology affects your capacity for solitude and development of empathy, which are critical for forming and sustaining human relationships. But in this digital age, you’re more likely to use the train ride or bus commute to consume more information on your electronic device, rather than think or reflect quietly. Instead of enjoying a face-to-face conversation on your break, you clear out your email inbox and scroll through news feeds.

Expanding connections through social media is not the same as building deep relationships and honing real friendships, which help to reduce stress and anxiety.  When your mental wellbeing is compromised, it’s harder to commit to and work on challenging projects.

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Avoiding and minimizing online distractions are necessary to get the right things done, with better results and in the least amount of time. To gain control over your digital device usage and online media consumption,  read 5 quick tips on dealing with digital distractions.

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Photo by: Benedicto de Jesus

5 quick tips on dealing with digital distractions

Digital technology puts information at your fingertips and keeps you connected with the rest of the world. But it also drains your productivity, distracts you from your highest priorities and slows progress on your major projects when it’s overused. It’s easier to update your Facebook page, watch YouTube videos, and check emails than do deep, creative work. 

Here are 5 quick tips on dealing with digital distractions: 

1. Get clear on what you really need to accomplish. If you neglect to design your day around your most important tasks, you’re more likely to seek the dopamine high that comes with consuming information online, posting on social media, and reacting to notifications on your phone.

Define which areas allow you to use your greatest strengths and tap into your key interests. Figure out where you derive the most long-term satisfaction and contribute the highest value. Curate the information you consume. Engage only with content that jives with your top areas of interest, and unsubscribe from content that doesn’t serve your highest priorities. By focusing on what really matters, you avoid going down the digital rabbit hole that leads you astray.

2. Put technology in its place. With digital devices, you can get turn-by-turn directions to where you need to go, send a quick message to a friend, and listen to a favorite podcast during your commute.  These are great modern-day conveniences to have. Use technology to help you execute on your priorities, but don’t let it dictate where you place our attention.

Processing emails is rarely the most critical use of your time. Resist the urge to respond to or read every single one of them as they hit your inbox. Surfing the Internet  and scrolling through news alerts on your break time feeds overwhelm and clogs up your headspace. Instead, take a walk, meditate, drink some water, or be with nature to truly decompress.

3. Turn off notifications.  The pop-up messages and sound alerts you get each time a text, or email comes in is bound to distract you from your real work.  Forget about checking it or replying to it within seconds or minutes. By end of day or next day is usually more than enough.

To reduce digital temptations when you need to be focusing on real work, remove automatic alerts and disable push notifications from social media.  Try online filters and website blockers like FocusMe (paid service), Freedom (paid service) or StayFocused (free service for Google Chrome users).

4. Have specific time blocks to go digital. Be intentional about when you check your emails, watch online videos, scroll through web pages, and engage with social media. Make it as hard as possible to reach for your digital devices at any time of the day. Avoid them first thing after you wake up (when you ought to be gearing  for your most significant projects), and right before bedtime (when you ought to be winding down and clearing your mind).

Before you start high-concentration work, close your web browsers and keep your smartphone out of sight – preferably in another room – with the Do Not Disturb mode on. (You can set it up so the most important calls still get through.)

Respond to emails and go online during chunks of predetermined time blocks on your own schedule. That way, you stay responsive and connected without being bombarded by digital distractions throughout the day. And carve out off-grid time, such as an entire Sunday, when you’re not responding to emails, surfing the Web, tweeting or retweeting, or liking posts on Facebook. Put away your digital device when you need to give undivided attention to the persons in front of you, such as when you’re having dinner with your family, meeting with a client, or engaging in conversation with a friend.

5. Track your technology use. Being aware of how and when you use your electronic devices is key to dealing with digital distractions. Do you know how much time you spend online in a given day? RescueTime and Toggl are among the time trackers available.

You might find that you are flooding your brain with useless trivia, fueling inner negativity by keeping up with the daily news, and wasting time on seemingly urgent things that are really non-essential. Perhaps you go digital to procrastinate because you don’t know where to begin with significant projects, or to alleviate boredom because you’re overqualified for your job. Or you might find that you use technology mostly as a tool to get important things done. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to do an audit of your technology use.

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Photo by: Phillip LeConte