On Productivity: Digital Fatigue and Analog Tools

Over the past few years, I have experienced what can best be described as “digital fatigue”. I had (have) a lot of devices around me– laptops, desktops, smartphones and tablets. These devices helped me stay productive but also at increasing level of distraction and eye strain. My work and personal calendars started getting populated faster than ever before. I yearned for a simple way to collect my thoughts, to follow them through and to understand, process and execute on all my work and personal goals. About three and a half years ago, I started going back to pen and paper. Around the same time I had just begun experimenting with fountain pens after last using them in my high school. Little did I realize, how well timed that experiment was.

I started small with a $1.50 fountain pen and a notebook from Daiso. At work, the note-taking approach was painful in the beginning since I had to do the double duty of writing, interpreting and then translating the notes to actions on a computer. At that time, I was using a ToDo app that synced across my phone, tablet and laptop, a note taking app (EverNote) and multiple calendars (Outlook for work and Google Calendar for personal stuff). My love for fountain pens and good quality paper was growing faster than my frustration with the double effort and thankfully so.

Within a few months, I had established a routine. A balance between my analog and digital tools – I used pen and paper to keep notes in my meetings. I took a few minutes to review them afterwards and then convert only those that were important into a list of handwritten todos. Appointments and meetings stayed on my digital calendars because of notifications.

As I got into my groove with this routine, I started feeling more in control of what I was listening to and discussing in meetings. I was no longer distracted by the incessant emails dropping in during meetings. Instead I was focused on what was being said and discussed. The writing experience made me think about it before I put pen to paper. If something did not make sense before writing, I was forced to question or follow up to get my doubts clarified.

While I see many engineers carry their Moleskines to meetings, the preference is still to use more of the computer and less of the notebook. I have flipped my workflow completely now- I avoid taking laptops to meetings. For one-on-one’s I try to skip taking my smartphone. This way, the only thing I can and will do in the discussion is to listen, absorb and process.

My eyes feel better. I remember things better. I have ready references to what was discussed months if not years ago on a topic. And most of all, I love the process of writing things down. It feels natural. It just feels right. If you are in the same boat as I was, a few years ago, do consider trying to analog route. There is nothing to lose and much to gain in the process.

My Analog Tools
I initially started off with a single medium size notebook for everything. Soon I realized, I needed to separate my work and personal notes. I settled on a medium size notebook for longer meetings and a smaller pocket notebook for shorter meetings. I dedicated a pocket notebook for all things personal- like writing the outline for this blog post and more. Recently I added a third one purely for doodling and as my creative outlet. I rotate my fountain pens ( I have many of those by now) and will someday do a separate post on choosing the right kind of notebooks and paper.

Of fountain pens, notebooks and the lost art of writing

Before I get started on the post, I wanted to apologize for the lack of posts over the last few weeks. I took a brief vacation (yay!) straddled between some significant work commitments. Not to mention, doing lots of stuff with the little guy. But I am back and hope to get into the usual post load in a week or two.

Here I am typing a blog post on my laptop on the lost art of writing. It is definitely ironic given that the laptop is probably the biggest reason for the writing habit to slowly but steadily disappear. The purpose of this post is partially to bemoan this sad state of affairs but equally nudge the readers to give writing a shot. For old times sake.

Long long ago, when I was in school I discovered that I could write pretty nicely. My handwriting was clean, legible and with the right effort, appeared print like. My teachers raved about it. Soon, I was scoring great in every exam that involved lots of writing.  I carried my skill to college and continued to live vicariously through my writing. My wife (then girlfriend) probably fell in love with my handwriting more than my physical self. I came to the US to do my Masters and a year later, bought my first laptop. Like any new fancy toy, I took to the laptop as my be all and end all tool for everything. Soon I was taking lecture notes on my laptop and doing fancy note taking on pdfs from Professors. It felt cool. The more I did it, the more I felt empowered by it. Before I realised it, I had almost entirely stopped using pen and paper other than writing my exams, some of which were also computer based.

A few years later, I felt the urge to pen a letter to someone and sat down with a ballpen that was lying around and a sheet of paper. Five lines into it, my wrist and hand started hurting. My fingers were extremely uncomfortable. I attributed it to not having written for a while. The only writing I was doing over the years was check signing and the occasional form that needed to be filled by hand. I tried again few days later and the same problem. To my utmost horror, I realized I couldnt write a page at a stretch anymore, leave alone reams of them. And my much prided handwriting was gone. Never to come back again. It didnt make much of a difference to my life but a small part of me wept silent tears of loss.

Fast forward to 2009 and the smartphone bug struck. What was not being typed on a laptop was now being fingered in on a smartphone and soon a tablet. It was as if the technology gods had decided to give the old art of writing a quick burial. Like with the laptop, I took to the smartphone quickly and didnt even pause to think about writing this time.

Late last year, I faced a different kind of a problem. I was going to meetings with my laptop or my smartphone and starting to get distracted. I was either typing away on my laptop or hunched over my phone. It was not a good feeling. I decided to give pen and paper a shot, after all these years. I started taking notes in meetings with a simple notebook and pen. Started writing anything and everything and slowly but steadily the joy of writing started to come back. It was time to get outfitted right. I discovered Daiso in Cupertino and picked up some nice notebooks (I have always fancied Japanese coworkers and business contacts for their notebooks). I then started hunting for the right kind of pencil and pen. Last week I found a cheap fountain pen at Daiso and followed it up by ordering a set of disposable fountain pens by Pilot (who knew they existed?). The feeling of a fountain pen in my hands after almost 16 years was something remarkable. It just felt right.Fountain pen

I am writing and writing furiously. Even stupid things now seem worth a page in one of my many notebooks at work or home. I am almost waiting to find an excuse to write. And I wonder every time I put pen to paper, how did I lose all those years. My old handwriting is not back, sadly. I miss it every day now. But I am not going to let that deter me from my writing. I am not making the same mistake twice. This time, the old art is here to stay.