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Analog Productivity: How Unplugging Can Boost Your Focus

When I reflect on my first experiences with “productivity,” I recall the paper agenda I kept starting in second or third grade. Throughout all of elementary school and middle school, this spiral-bound book was my main form of personal organization.

Looking back, such a tool seems quaint compared to my current system of digital to-do lists, project management apps, and Google Calendar. At least, at first glance.

Upon closer inspection, I wonder if I’ve over-complicated things. I wonder if there’s still value in analog productivity tools such as a paper planner, wall calendar, or whiteboard.

I think the answer is yes. At least, that’s what I’m going to try to convince you in the following exploration of what I call analog productivity.

Read on to find out what it is, why you should consider it, and how you can apply analog productivity to your life without giving up your digital tools.

What Is Analog Productivity?

When I use the term analog productivity, I mean staying organized with non-digital tools.

Using a paper wall calendar, for instance, is a form of analog productivity. As is tracking your tasks on a whiteboard or taking notes by hand. If you’re using a physical, real-world tool in place of a digital one, then that’s analog productivity.

But why should you care? Why give up the convenience, connectivity, and ubiquity of your digital productivity tools? Read on to find out.

Why Go Analog?

“Few serious commentators think we’d be better off retreating to an earlier technological age. But at the same time, people are tired of feeling like they’ve become a slave to their devices”

– Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism

For a blog that generally advocates digital productivity and organization, the suggestion to go analog may seem odd.

Recently, however, I’ve wanted to spend less time in front of a computer screen and more time out in the physical world. This desire, which extends to recreational activities as much as work ones, is what led me to explore analog productivity methods.

The results, generally, have been quite fruitful. Here are two reasons you should give analog productivity a try:

Reduced Distractions

Digital productivity tools are amazing, but using them often requires you to open your phone or at least a web browser. This can lead to some unrelated digital rabbit hole that distracts from whatever you intended to do.

With analog tools, however, the chance of distraction is much lower. For instance, I used to track my habits in an app on my phone. While that worked fairly well, opening my phone to check off a habit also opened me up to distracting apps and notifications.

Nowadays, I track my habits in a paper notebook instead. I can open the notebook, mark a habit as done, and get on with what I was doing. The notebook is just paper — no web browser or text messages to tempt me.

As you’ll see in the coming sections, habit tracking is just one of many areas where analog tools can prove less distracting. Reduced distraction, however, is far from the only reason. There’s also…

Simplicity

Compared to much work equipment of the past, digital tools offer a welcome simplicity. Your smartphone has replaced the need for a scanner, landline, voice recorder, and much more. And it does it all for a price that, in the scheme of things, is rather modest.

However, digital tools also bring their own complexity. Your work can end up scattered across dozens of different apps, making it difficult to remember where you put a task or document. And if you’re without power or internet, it can be nearly impossible to work.

Furthermore, digital tools make it possible to add as many tasks as you want, rearranging and rescheduling things willy-nilly. While helpful in some cases, this can also leave you distracted and scattered. You can end up with a productivity system that’s unnecessarily complex and full of superfluous tasks.

With analog tools, you have none of these concerns. Not only do they require no power or internet, but their inherent limitations force you to simplify your system.

If your whiteboard only gives you space for a finite number of tasks, for instance, then you’ll have to prioritize. In this way, analog productivity methods can actually make you more productive.

7 Analog Productivity Ideas You Can Try

By now, I hope I’ve convinced you that analog productivity is worthwhile. But what can you do to start applying analog productivity to your work and life? Below, you’ll find several practical suggestions for going analog.

Get a Wall Calendar

While I would never give up the flexibility and convenience of a digital calendar, the humble wall calendar still has its place in my productivity arsenal.

Mostly, I use a wall calendar as an easy way to reference the date. I could do this in Google Calendar, sure.

But if I open Google Calendar, then I might get distracted with all the meetings, birthdays, and events coming up. It’s not as distracting as Facebook or YouTube, but it still pulls me away from my work.

With a paper calendar, in contrast, all I have to do is glance at it, note the date, and get back to work. This makes it a handy supplement to my digital calendar.

Of course, it’s possible to take things further. A good friend of mine tracks her events and appointments on a large paper wall calendar. And many people also use wall calendars to track progress on habits or goals.

As a bonus, wall calendars make great decorations. As I write this, for instance, I’m looking at my beautiful (and educational) Kurzgesagt calendar.

Track Your Habits On Paper

One of the main inspirations for this article was a habit-tracking system that CIG team member Martin developed. Tired of the limitations of habit-tracking apps, he created a paper-based system called the goalbook.

Looking to make some changes in the new year, I gave the goalbook system a try. While there are many benefits to the system, my favorite part of the goalbook has been getting away from screens. Instead of risking the distraction of shiny digital devices, you just open a notebook, make a few marks, and get on with your day.

If you’re struggling to track your habits with digital systems (or at all), then I highly recommend checking out Martin’s full explanation of the goalbook.

And whether or not you decide to adopt his specific system, consider tracking your habits and goals on paper. It could be just the thing you need to make real progress…instead of getting distracted by an app or notification.

Track the Time With a Watch

How often do you take out your phone to check the time, and then end up spending 30 minutes scrolling Instagram?

If this sounds like you, consider getting a watch. Not only is it a classic accessory, but it will let you check the time without ever pulling out your phone. It may seem old-fashioned, but it can make a big difference (HT to an anecdote in Digital Minimalism that inspired this tip).

Note: To truly minimize distractions, I recommend getting an analog watch (or at least, a digital watch that isn’t connected to the internet). Smartwatches that constantly ping you with notifications are counterproductive if your goal is to be more focused and less frantic.

If your phone is constantly derailing your productivity, here’s how to keep it from distracting you.

Read Paper Books

While I think digital books are a marvelous invention, I’ll never give up my paper volumes. Sure, there’s an element of nostalgia, but my main reasons are practical.

As I mentioned earlier, it comes back to being less distracted. While you can read on a computer, phone, or tablet, there’s always the risk of opening another distracting app or getting a notification. And even with a minimalist e-reader like a Kindle Paperwhite, there’s the risk that it dies or malfunctions.

Paper books, in contrast, require nothing but light and eyes to read. They let you focus on reading, and nothing else. I do admit that they’re often more expensive than digital books, but that’s why we have used bookstores and the library!

If you read paper books regularly, I strongly recommend getting a book stand. This simple tool makes it much easier to keep a book open to the correct page while also taking notes (and taking some strain off your neck).

Write Longhand

How long has it been since you wrote something by hand? These days, most of us only handwrite things when signing restaurant receipts. Writing by hand, then, can feel like a lost art.

However, just because you no longer need to write things by hand, that doesn’t mean writing by hand is useless.

To start, taking notes by hand can improve learning compared to typing notes on a computer. This is what researchers found in a 2014 study that compared the conceptual understanding of students who took lecture notes longhand vs. those who took notes on a laptop.

Beyond that, though, writing by hand can boost creativity. I would never write an entire article by hand, but many of these articles begin life as bullet points and mind maps in my notebook. Getting away from the computer and onto paper gives me a fresh perspective and a slower pace, which often leads to new ideas.

If you’re feeling stuck creatively, or just burnt out from staring at a screen, try moving some of your writing to paper.

Note: I still do all of my longhand writing on paper. But it’s now possible to nearly replicate this experience using a tablet, stylus, and the right app. Read our guide to the best note-taking apps for iPad to learn more.

Additionally, consider using the Rocketbook Everlast if you want to write by hand and then easily transcribe your notes into digital form. The Rocketbook is also erasable and reusable, so you don’t have to buy a new notebook when you run out. Learn more about the Rocketbook in our detailed review.

Keep a Distraction Log

As I mentioned earlier, one of my favorite things about analog productivity is the lack of distractions. But what do you do if you’re working on something and think of a question that you need to research? Or a task you need to attend to?

Whether I’m writing in Google Docs or reading a paper book, my favorite solution to this problem is a distraction log. It’s a pad of paper or notebook where you write down random, distracting thoughts that pop into your head while you work.

This way, opening Google or your task list doesn’t disrupt whatever you’re working on. Writing distracting thoughts down also gets them out of your head, allowing you to maintain your focus. At the end of the workday, you can review your distraction log and take any necessary action.

Use an Analog To-Do List

I love my digital to-do list and would never give it up.

But just because a digital to-do list has many benefits, that doesn’t mean you need to look at it constantly. As with other productivity apps, checking your to-do list on your computer or phone can end up distracting you and fragmenting your attention.

As an alternative, you can keep an analog to-do list. There are a few approaches here.

For starters, you could use Martin’s method:

  • Each day, consult your digital to-do list and transcribe the day’s important tasks into a flip-up notebook.
  • Write your work tasks on one side of the page and your personal tasks on the other side.
  • Throughout the day, cross off your work tasks as you complete them.
  • Once your work tasks are done, flip to the other side of the page and complete your personal tasks.

With this method, you get the storage and organizational benefits of digital to-do lists and the minimalist benefits of paper to-do lists. You could also do something similar with a whiteboard, writing your work tasks in one column and your personal tasks in another.

If you prefer, you can take things a step further with a completely analog task management system. The bullet journal system is a popular example of this, but you could also use a more traditional planner such as this Moleskine.

Give Analog Productivity a Chance

If you’ve read this far, then I hope you’ll try applying analog productivity methods in your work. It can feel odd at first to intentionally forego digital tools, but the improved focus and increased simplicity are worth it.

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