Using Paper Tools

While digital tools can be nice for productivity because of their features, they also have many drawbacks:

  • Digital tools tether you to using a digital device, which can be full of highly accessible distractions.
  • Software still tends to be rigid, limited to the capabilities that are actually implemented by the developers.
  • Software tools have a learning curve. The more tools you use, the more learning time you have to invest. For some software it could take a full day or longer just to become modestly productive with it.
  • Software tools often drag you into dealing with upgrades, add-ons, and security and privacy issues.
  • The more software tools you use, the more complicated your tech life becomes, and the more tech issues you’re likely to have.
  • Software tools often have a useful lifespan that’s limited to a few years unless you keep upgrading. Many tools don’t endure for a decade.
  • For each software tool you use, you may get more email because of it – for support, tips, upgrades, privacy policy updates, etc.
  • If you stop using the software, you may not even be able to access what you’ve created with it. You might be locked into years of upgrade cycles, even if you don’t use it that much.
  • Software tools sometimes break and don’t work, so you may have to seek support or search for solutions online, which chews up time.

While there are many benefits to using software tools, there are many hidden costs as well. Consider all the time you’ve spent researching, learning, evaluating, upgrading, and maintaining various software tools. Are you getting a good payoff for your investment when you consider the total time you’ve had to invest?

Now add the additional time you may have lost from digital distractions when you use software tools, especially on an Internet connected device. How often did you break away from using a genuine productivity tool to check email or social media or to look something up online?

I tend to be wary of over-relying on software tools when I think about the total cost of using them. I like using a relatively small number of tools, especially highly flexible ones like Scrivener. I lean towards minimalism in this area, so I don’t have to maintain such a large collection of tools. I also unsubscribe from nonessential emails related to the software I use, so they don’t distract me. I know I can look something up online when I need it.

Often I prefer to turn towards tactile, low-tech tools such as plain paper, spiral notebooks, index cards, file folders, sticky notes, pens, markers, and a marker board. Such tools can be impressively good for productivity.

Here are some of the benefits of working with such tools:

  • It’s easier to get into a deeper, zen-like focus with paper tools. There’s nothing to click on. There are no icons to distract you.
  • The interface is clean and simple. Pick up a pen or marker and put ink on a surface.
  • Such tools are still immensely flexible. You can write or draw anything you want. You can write lists, sketches, and mind maps on a single page if you want, all with the same tools.
  • Writing by hand forces you to slow down. This makes you think more carefully about what you’re creating. It may feel uncomfortable at first if you’re enmeshed in the digital world, but it’s really nice when you get used to it.
  • The simplicity of the tools enables your mind to flow more energy into emotional awareness while you work. This can be really helpful for spotting problems in your ideas early.
  • If you’ll eventually create something in a digital form, you know that the paper version isn’t final. This can take the pressure off and reduce perfectionism. You have space to play with the ideas and see what emerges.
  • Paper tools have no built-in clocks, so you can work more timelessly and really get into the zone. You can always set a digital device to remind you about appointments if necessary. Or work facing a window (or outdoors), and reconnect with the patterns of sunlight.
  • You can lay out a large amount of information at once, easily moving pieces around. Index cards are especially easy to rearrange and reorder.
  • The interface of using your hands with pen, paper, and other offline tools can be more pleasing and enjoyable than using less flexible digital interfaces.
  • Offline tools require no electricity or Internet access. You can use them anywhere.
  • There isn’t much of a learning curve for such tools. You probably already know how to use them. And you may discover new ways to use them with practice.
  • You don’t have to deal with more emails or tech support.
  • When working offline, and you feel tempted to look something up online “real quick,” you may not bother to do so if your digital devices are out of reach. Much of the time those quick lookups aren’t even necessary and would only lead to other distractions anyway. You can maintain a separate paper side list of items to look up later, so you can stay on task.
  • Whatever you create on paper will likely endure for your lifetime if you want it to last that long.
  • You knowledge of how to use paper tools could still be relevant for decades. You don’t need to worry about retraining yourself when they get upgraded. So you can really invest in depth with these tools over time, and they won’t leave you behind.
  • You can still convert anything you create on paper or a marker board into a basic digital form just by photographing it.
  • Time seems to pass more slowly when working offline. You may feel like you have 50% more time to get your work done, especially without the distractions of the digital world.

I especially love index cards for working out ideas, doing deep planning work, and for recording short routines. I use index cards for recording simple processes and checklists too. My morning routine is written on an index card.

I often use index cards to plan my days. I have stable cards that I use for recurring tasks, and I can make new cards for novel tasks. Then I just arrange them in the right order, and there’s my plan for the day. If I don’t finish everything, it’s easy to bump cards to the next day. If I want to rearrange tasks mid-day, I just reshuffle the cards.

I love keeping supplies well-stocked, so I never feel a sense of scarcity when using such tools. I have almost 2500 index cards in my office closet, some thinner and some thicker. I have dozens of pens and markers, so if one runs out, there’s always a backup.

I also like using a 4′ x 3′ marker board on wheels. Then I can move it wherever I want it. I often use it to hash out ideas when I feel like standing and moving around while I think.

My goals for the quarter are written on a piece of paper, and I review them every morning just by looking at the paper. This helps me get focused on my day and think about how what I’m doing today is moving my larger goals forward.

Many plans and ideas for future courses and for Conscious Growth Club are written on paper and filed neatly into file folders. I use a 5-drawer flat file cabinet to store my most accessible files on their sides, so they’re very visible and don’t get buried in a vertical file cabinet. Sometimes I’ll use a drawer to lay out ideas for a project on index cards, and then I can slide the drawer closed when I’m done. It’s like having an extra table top surface, but there’s no visible clutter when the drawer is closed. I’ve layered the bottom of each drawer with a thin rubbery mat, so the cards don’t slide around when I open and close the drawer.

Paper and digital tools aren’t mutually exclusive. I use both. I don’t write blog posts on paper. But I did outline my book by organizing sticky notes into columns on a large sheet of paper. Each sticky note contained a key idea I wanted to include in the book. Each column of sticky notes became a chapter of the book. Laying out the sticky notes in an intelligent order was a nice way to visually organize the book. Then I used software to do the actual writing.

Another thing I like about paper tools is that they help me feel connected to a sense of history. Sometimes when I’m working on paper, I like to light a candle nearby and imagine what it was like for various historical figures to work with simple creative tools. When reading books written hundreds of years ago, I’m often in awe of the writing style and the creativity expressed without the benefit of digital tools. This helps me realize that I don’t need fancy digital tools to do my best creative work.