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.

{Read, Write, Listen, Express and Do} more

2015 is here. We are a full two weeks into the new year which allows us to commit to things rationally without the hasty decisions we take in the name of New Year resolutions. I have a mixed opinion on resolutions. I think, taken too seriously, they tend to be ineffective. But seen as a fresh start to our personal and professional life, every 365 days, they make much more sense. Especially coming off the year end holidays.

2014 was a great year – I achieved new milestones professionally, made a ton of friends in the community and spent good time with the family. My blogs had over 30,000 views for the year which might be its high water mark ever (more on this later) and I am thankful to all of you for reading all the stuff I write- good and the not so good. Now it is time to commit to goals not just for 2015 but moving forward. Maybe, just maybe, some of you might be interested in a few of the ones I highlight below. See them less as resolutions and more as ongoing experiments in personal improvement.

Read More

This one is fairly obvious. Reading makes us better. I used to be a voracious reader growing up and that slowed down during my early professional years. Over the last 2-3 years, I have been slowly but steadily increasing how much I read. I set fairly conservative goals for each year of 5 works of fiction, 5 works of non-fiction plus magazines, articles, the works. I far surpassed my goal for everything but non-fiction last year and I am out to correct that this year. My Kindle Voyage and local library are my best friends. The reading experience on the Kindle Voyage is remarkable. While the wait for good books in the library is a pain, I have gotten a good portion of fiction reading from my library. I have a whole pile of books I purchased over the past year to get to. For online articles, I favorite the ones I want to read and then use IFTTT to send them to Pocket.  I have Pocket on everything from my phone, Mac and tablets. The image below is the first batch I need to get to**.

Reading List- Q1 2015

Write More

Writing here refers to contributing more online and also to write more with pen and paper. With your support, my blogs have gotten quite popular over the years and while I am still very enthusiastic to continue writing, I would like to explore new vistas and new topics that require more research and introspection. Blog posts will be fewer but hopefully with something more to take with you.

His writing materials

My continuing obsession with fountain pens and good quality paper is the other part of the story. My writing with pen and paper has dramatically increased. This post was composed as a series of bullet points on a 80th anniversary edition of a Rhodia Classic Ice Top Staplebound Notepad with a Hero fountain pen (remember those?) using a Noodlers Ink Heart of Darkness***.This obsession will get its own post soon.

HearListen More

In my notes, I titled this section as “Hear More” but upon further thought, modified it to Listen More. There is the critical difference where I could hear but not really listen and pay attention to what is being said. My penchant for being the talker in the room prevented me for a long time from being a good listener. This is a work in progress.

The other component of “Listen More” is related to podcasts. Podcasts have enjoyed a resurgence in the recent years and thanks to Serial, many more people are jumping in. Podcasts are my daily companion during my commute and a huge source of knowledge. If you are into podcasts, drop me a note. I can recommend a few****. Some off the top of my head worth listening to- The Pen Addict (surprise, surprise), Techpinions (tech analysis), The Critical Path (tech analysis), APM Marketplace (Kai Ryssdal FTW), Accidental Tech Podcast (tech+Apple), The Web Ahead (web dev) and a whole lot more. On my Mac, I use iTunes to listen to podcasts. On iOS devices, I highly recommend Marco Arment’s Overcast app. On Android, I use Podcast Addict.

TalkExpress More

This is part of what is new for 2015. I would like to express myself better. This is through other forms of media beyond plain text online. I am looking to add more videos to my reviews. I started adding hands-on videos to my reviews in 2014. There will be more of this. I attempted adding a read-along version for my book, Mahabharata for Kids. Initial response has been good. I am contemplating more podcast type posts or maybe even an audio version to go with every post. I am open to feedback on this.

Do More

Twenty four hours is never enough. To read and write and listen and express more, 24 hours is definitely not enough. But there is an itch to do more. More local community events, alumni events, side projects for work, personal side projects, an Android and/or iOS app, finishing a full course on one of the MOOCs, and a new book. The list is long. If I can get to half of this list without spending one less minute with my family, it will be a very successful year. Onward march!

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

– Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening


** On my choice of books:

I enjoyed Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and St.Claire’s when I was younger. When I saw them during my last trip to India, I jumped on it. I have not read Haruki Murakami before. This is my first attempt. Kurzweil’s book has been on my list for a long time. Finally picked up a copy recently. Walt Isaacson’s “Innovators” came in for good praise last year as did “Asura” in Indian fiction circles.

*** The first sign of obsession on any object, fountain pen, paper or otherwise is that you start documenting specifics. Type of nib (Extra Fine, Fine, Medium, Broad), brand and specifics about the ink and so on.

**** I listen to a ton of podcasts on a variety of topics. Let me know your interest and I can recommend some good ones.