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