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Improve Your Digital Work With Analog Tools

For years I spend time each week trying to improve my productivity, creativity, and quality of work by optimizing my digital tools. Did I have the right text editor? The best keyboard? Enough RAM for my workload? Did I have the correct build tool and automation process? All of this helped me become more productive -- to some extent -- but it never helped me as a developer. In fact, in retrospect, I can tell you it was quite draining and the gains I realized were not worth the time I put in.

Then, during the early months of 2020, I had some time to think through my work process and I started to pull back from the digital tweaks and look into my analog workflows. With the start of the pandemic I was spending so much time on my computer that I started thinking about how I could optimize my computer time by minimizing it.

I experimented with many ways to do this but, for the sake of brevity, I'll focus on what's worked and what I've kept up with.

Journaling

Nightly journaling (by hand!) is something I do that has, indirectly, helped my work considerably. I don't journal about work or use this time to devise clever solutions to the day's problems, but I still find that it helps with work. Spending some time reflecting gives me some perspective on the day, and most importantly lets me think through how I spent my last 16 (or so) hours. Was I productive? Did I work on something impactful? Was I working or just keeping busy?

I'd recommend journaling by getting a great pen , a nice notebook, and giving yourself 15 minutes to write down about a page about your day. It's sort of like a written meditation, but I can stick with it where meditation, well, it's not for everyone.

Written Notes

I spent years typing my notes on my computer. It meant my notes were searchable and securely stored in the cloud, available from anywhere. This had some downsides, like I was constantly typing away during meetings and interviews, but it still seemed worth it.

I've since moved to handwritten notes, which is awful in terms of search and I end up storing much less data, but my retention of this data is much better. Numerous studies seem to back up my view that handwritten notes are better for comprehension and retention. Even if they didn't there is no way I'd go back because this method works for me.

And yes, I have spilled a cup of coffee on my notebook, losing a page of valuable notes from a vendor meeting earlier that week but the benefits still outweigh the costs. I'll likely have to look into some form of scanner to keep notes secure in the long run.

ToDo Lists

The ToDo list is the oldest trick in the book right? Well it's so old and so predictable that I had moved to all sorts of fancy solutions for my lists, like Todoist for example. Sure these sites and apps are slick and wonderfully designed, but I never seemed to be able to stay on top of them.

On the other hand, when I have a notebook with a three small lists on it that I want to accomplish each work day, I find myself eager to run through the tasks and rarely forgetting what I'd written down. Personally, my lists each day are:

  • Must Do For Work
  • Want To Do For Work
  • Personal To Dos

I try to keep each list to about 5 items, never more than 20 in total. And most of the items are small, like "don't forget to pay this bill" or "call plumber" so the remembering is much more important than finding 10 or so minutes to allocate to a given task.

Need a second opinion? This post on analog tools at Fast Company was really helpful.

 
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