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5 Old-School Tricks for Newfound Productivity

You wouldn’t want to redline your car for long; that’s a great way to make sure you end up at the mechanic. Yet we expect our brains to keep performing while locked in overdrive the majority of the time. In fact, we assume that living this way is a given in our hectic, hyperconnected lives. It doesn’t have to be.

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These days we are working and living online more than ever, especially since the coronavirus pandemic began. But it feels like the more space we take up in the virtual world, the greater our hunger grows for ways to unplug from it. More people are turning toward analog productivity tools and techniques that can help unglue eyes from screens.

What might those old-school tools and tricks encompass? How about analog alarm clocks so you can keep your phone away from your bed? Or perhaps a stylish hourglass timer so you can create focused time for work without the help of a device? It may sound bizarre in our 21st-century digital age, but there is actually a steadily growing market for exactly these kinds of products — and with good, expert-advised reason.

Author and professor Cal Newport is one of those who advocates for a minimalistic approach to living in a digital world. In fact, “Digital Minimalism” was the title of one of his bestselling books. Newport followed it up with another book called “Deep Work,” which he describes as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

Deep work, argues Newport, depends on greatly minimizing the digital distractions pulling us every which way, from the ping of an incoming text or email to the temptations of a web browser that’s as close as our phones. But how do we do it? That’s where the analog approach comes in.

The Write Stuff

My own analog tools of choice are simple: real paper and real pens or pencils. I take a small notebook with me everywhere I go. I use it to jot down notes on what I do or see, to record ideas, or just to doodle. I also write down meetings, appointments, and goals in a physical planner.

It’s been well-documented that writing things down by hand is a better way of retaining information than typing on a laptop. Writing by hand forces you to slow down, as most of us write much more methodically than we type. When you write this way, you have time to think about what you’re putting down on the page.

In contrast, when you’re racing from one thing to another, flipping between browser windows and emails and phone screens, your brain has to constantly shift gears. When you slow down and do one thing at a time — which writing by hand, for example, forces you to do — you give your brain a break from the stress of task switching.

You wouldn’t want to redline your car for long; that’s a great way to make sure you end up at the mechanic. Yet we expect our brains to keep performing while locked in overdrive the majority of the time. In fact, we assume that living this way is a given in our hectic, hyperconnected lives. It doesn’t have to be.

5 Ways Forward

For creatives and marketing professionals who want to make the best use of analog-based tools or resources to empower their own individuality, spark more creativity, or move more deliberately toward their goals, consider these tips and tricks:

1. Find inspiration. Use tools that make you want to, well, use them. About five years ago, I was feeling very fatigued with writing. I longed for writing to be more fun again.I started using fountain pens — a truly anachronistic writing tool — because they made me want to write. The pens were beautiful, and there were so many fun ink colors to choose from! Instead of dreading writing like it was a chore, I began to actually look forward to it as a pleasure. If you can find a tool that inspires you to get organized or do your work, go for it.

2. Think independently. Just because your favorite influencer uses a particular tool doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Let’s face it: We all want to know what’s in the secret sauce of success that carries some people to the top. Social media makes it easy to see what other people are doing. For example, writer, artist, and creativity influencer Austin Kleon often posts pictures of his diaries and logbooks. I have serious journal envy when I look at his posts, but I also know from experience that what works for Kleon’s creative process doesn’t work all that well for me. And that’s fine. It doesn’t have to.

3. Stay patient. It takes time to figure out what works for you. I wish there were a way to jump over this part of the creative process, but if there is, I haven’t found it (and believe me, I’ve tried). Sometimes, you just have to experiment. You may end up spending money on stuff that you end up not using the way you’d hoped (or at all). Try not to think of it as a loss but as part of your investment in learning. Because that’s really what it is.

4. Prevent G.A.S. Photographers have a term they use for the constant need to add to their camera equipment collection with the next, the new, the novel, the anything — it’s called “gear acquisition syndrome,” or G.A.S. for short. This term can apply to anything, and you have to watch out for it or you’ll find yourself spending so much time looking for the “right” equipment that you’ll end up not spending time on your actual work. (Not that this has ever happened to me.) So watch out for G.A.S. and don’t let productivity tools become procrastination tools.

5. Be mindful. I know, I know: Mindfulness is so trendy these days — but there’s good reason for that. You can’t be doing a million things at once and paying attention to all of them. The word “pay” is significant in this phrase: Attention costs something. Specifically, it costs you the ability to be uncommitted to the task at hand. So be focused, present, and engaged. Be mindful of what you need to do, and set parameters that allow you to do it as well as you can.

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