About 6 weeks ago I started an experiment. Ever since I started working for myself, I have experimented with different tools from drafting to personal productivity. I’m constantly trying to simplify how many things I need and always trying to get the most out of myself, despite my capacity for procrastination and my constant battle with the many distractions of the internet.
Some other time I’ll talk about how I produce architectural drawings, specifications, sketches and the like. This morning I wanted to share with you the biggest shift in my personal productivity. The shift backwards to paper.
I’ve long professed my love for my notebook as a disconnect place to capture ideas, do quick sketches, write little journal entries and just clear my head. I’ve tried all different sizes and shapes, but in the end the classic blank Moleskine (Star Wars Edition for me thank you) seems to win out. I know many people capture their notes with an app on their phone or tablet. I used to as well. But what I found (for me) is that my phone is a completely connected space. All day it buzzes, beeps and flashes with updates from the outside world, IMs, incoming tweets mentioning me, emails, txts, Facebook notifications, Instagram likes…you get the picture. Having my phone in my hand during a meeting or a brainstorming session is an invitation for the rest of the world to join me, but when I take a meeting I owe it to the person I’m meeting with or myself to be focused. My notebook is disconnected, and it’s non-linear. I don’t have to open one app for text and then another for sketching. I just start drawing something if I need to. It’s a simpler, cleaner tool so it’s become my go-to.
Which brings me to probably the two most important personal productivity tools for anyone trying to work for themselves - the task list and the calendar. I’ve tried tons of different task management and calendar apps. Some that come to mind:
- Remember the Milk
- EasyTask Manager
- To Do
- Week Calendar
- Free Time
- Time Logger
- And of course the Reminders and iCal Apps built into the iPhone
I’ll spare you a rundown of all of these different apps different features and failures. Some boasted voice input while others were designed for speed, still others were about layout or location based reminders, etc. They were all sexy for a minute, but here’s what my experimenting yielded.
For about 4 months I was using the digital combination of Evernote, OmniFocus, and iCal to manage my calendar, tasks and notes and for awhile everything was blissful. Perhaps I’ll write more about my evolving relationship with Evernote soon. Let’s focus on Omnifocus and iCal.
When I first bought OmniFocus (at a pretty hefty price) and installed it on my Mac, I was enraptured. Little by little my tasks are organized by project, context, due date, even location. You can make them recurring and give them start and end dates. There really is no end to how much information about your tasks OmniFocus can handle. I actually felt super productive just putting all of these things into a system. The system (based on David Allen’s GTD) felt solid.
At the same time, I’d been using my iPhone’s built in calendar functions for a long time. Managing and sharing dates and times with really no problems so to speak except when you’re phone is everything to you, it can only be one thing at a time. So if you’re sitting in a Starbucks and reviewing your day or on the phone with a client and you’re trying to figure out when you’re going to get a hunk of work done or perhaps a client wants to have a meeting. You can’t actually look at your calendar while either A) Reviewing your task list or B) actually talking on the phone.
After time the cracks in the system began to show…Oh I didn’t sort through my OmniFocus Inbox before I left the house, so the shopping items I added there didn’t make it to the shopping list. Then of course I’d have projects that I wanted to start on a particular day and date, but other things took precedent so they flew to the back burner, but OmniFocus is still telling me that they are prominent now. And just how finely should one parse out their contexts? How much time should I really spend figuring out if a task is going to be done in my office, on my mac or on my iPad? In short, managing OmniFocus was a project in and of itself. A project that competed for attention with everything else on my computer/iPad/iPhone screens. Then of course the calendar app became the same way - sometimes for events I didn’t even add. Soon they were just two more apps beeping and buzzing and flashing. Together they had become yet another distraction to avoid.
The pinnacle of this might have been while I was grocery shopping. There I stood looking at my extensively organized shopping list in OmniFocus when my notifications flashed, someone tweeted me a lighting question. Compulsively I switched over and started to answer, then I got a txt, I finished my tweet, then txt’d a reply, then I had forgotten the next item on my list so I went back to Omni and scrolled back through. I looked up and realized I’d been standing in the chips and salsa aisle for five minutes. Meanwhile up ahead, a woman in her 70’s had her shopping list written on the back of an old receipt. I glanced at it as I walked by…she was 80% through it, tiny check marks ticking off what she had already picked up. That was the moment when I decided things I needed to do needed to be stored in a place separate from all of the distractions my phone held for me.
So I took the leap backwards to see if using a paper planner would help this problem. So far, so good. Here’s the secret. A book and pencil require only a certain amount of attention and are highly personalized. In order to know what’s on your calendar or on your task list for the day, you have to open the book and look. It doesn’t seek you out, you seek it out. It’s also highly malleable. For instance in the open space at the top of every week page, I like to write in big bold letters the projects that are active that week. That way when I’m flipping pages, I can see what’s coming and why I might not be able to take on anything else. It’s my own quirk but I like it. I maintain a running list of tasks from week to week on one page and my appointments for that week on the facing page, it’s utterly simple, and brutally effective.
For those of you who are skeptical let me answer a few probable challenges…
BUT, BUT! There’s only so much room on one piece of paper!!!
Yet another reason I enjoy my notebook. Limited space means I have to prioritize, to erase and reshuffle. I means I have to think about my tasks.
Right, but I like to set up reminders for myself and have my phone run things.
If that’s true more power to you. Personally, I grew tired of the small rectangle in my pocket demanding all my attention all the time. I suspect I’m not alone. It seems every professional I know has a love/hate relationship with their phone. Perhaps we expect too much from these little guys?
Isn’t it just easier to do this stuff digitally?
What I found is that it really isn’t. By the time I open the calendar app, jump to the day I want, tap the plus symbol and thumb type/scroll through everything I need to input I could have written it down.
Don’t You Spend a lot of time re-writing stuff?
Yes! But this, to me, is where the power of paper really comes through. Something about the act of looking at my notes and pulling out the tasks, then transferring them by hand, to my datebook, checking them against the other items already there and writing it all down makes me think about them in a real way. I’m not relying on the computer to do it. I do it myself, you’d be amazed how many times I think about my week’s calendar and a mental image of the page comes up. Or how often I can say without looking “no, I have a thing at that time.”
So there are no problems with paper?
OK, paper isn’t perfect. There are things about working this way of working that are inconvenient.
- It’s another thing - when packing, or getting dressed to go outside, the datebook and pencil are yet two more things I need to make sure I have with me.
- It’s a single point of failure - the digital world is all about the cloud. There is no cloud for your paper notes. Losing your datebook is a single point of failure.
- It’s not shareable easily.
- I worry about the environmental impact. Does anyone have any links to studies on the environmental footprint of paper versus the cloud?
All in all though, I’ve found things to be much simpler and much more fun using paper than all the apps in the world. My phone is a connected space, my notebook and datebook are disconnected spaces. I’m loving the balance of the two.
How do you manage your creative workload? Have you gone all digital or do analog tools play a role?