19 November 2005

Why techies are leading the back-to-paper movement

Here's a guest post from Douglas Johnston of DIY Planner fame:

Vive la révolution!
by Douglas Johnston

I spent last year working a full-time contract as an I.T. trainer and facilitator for non-profit groups. My only colleague in that branch of the organisation was the regional coordinator, Bettina. Now, she and I got along fabulously, but there was one fundamental difference between us: she had used the same type of paper planners since she was a teenager, and I -- the high-tech wunderkind -- had an elaborate productivity system set up to span three operating systems, a Palm, several online services, and pretty much every possible eventuality of the job. She would march around toting a pen and planner, and I would alternate between the handheld and the keyboard. Who do you think was consistently more efficient?

She kicked my sweet little fanny, and good.

The problem with technology
While I would carefully set up my list of 50-odd next actions, prioritising them, categorising them, setting alarms, and syncing between all the technology tools I had at my fingertips, Bettina would just glance at her book and get things done. This is not to say I was a slacker -- on the contrary, I did manage to plough through an extraordinary amount of work and training-- but a certain needless percentage of my time was spent tweaking my productivity system and trying to make it all work smoothly as a whole, mostly after-hours.

And then there were the crashes....

The torch is lit
Others have caught on, too. The sense of irony in such things is igniting a flame or two, raising a certain noise in the night, causing cries to ring out amidst the broken delusions and utopian dreams: were we wrong to invest all our trust and labours in technology?

Dave has mentioned the back-to-paper revolution here, and he's right. Strangely enough, it's mainly a revolt of tech lovers against their favourite toys, junkies eschewing their drug of choice. It's painful, it's heart-wrenching, it flies in the face of our own self-identities, and it makes all our high-tech podium-thumping and evangelising suddenly look hollow.

Trading away the handhelds, tablet PCs and online productivity tools for pens, planners, cards and Moleskines is a leap of faith, like toppling a regime in the hope that the next one will somehow be more benevolent, more attuned to your needs, and offer greater opportunities. It may not, and you may find yourself before the firing line, remembering with fondness the evils of yesterday.

I'm overstating the case, of course, and the metaphor too. But to a techie, the sudden wild thrust into the world of analog is a revolution, both exhilirating and frightening. It's the thrill of learning new skills and gear and approaches, but it's also the abandonment of many addictive tools you know so well. But why bother?

A change in focus
Not only does using paper planners, storyboards, index cards, whiteboards and flip charts allow us to see and experience things from entirely new vantage points, they force us to re-examine the execution and importance of the task at hand. It's the break from the worn-out tech-centred paradigm, with no restrictions to hinder you, not even battery life.

While we're on the topic of focus, paper does help slow down the world, if only for a mere moment, and collect your thoughts. Free from the white noise of websites, the endless pinging of the email inbox, the 120 menu items per mouse click, and the average of one thousand significant chunks of information per hour, we can devote the entirety of one instance to one topic. Clarity of thought, anyone?

Back to basics
The biggest boon for the low-tech migrator is the stripping down of one's needs to the barest fundamentals. Suddenly naked in front of the mirror, we see all our marks, foibles and strengths. We see the things we actually need to get done, and perhaps how best to do them.

We see the downfalls of the past, and the possibilities of the future. We can suck in our stomach, puff out our chest, and get to work. We see our calendar, in black in white, before us, as well as some simple checklists, some basic reference material, some blank paper to brainstorm, and perhaps a chart or two. Why exactly does one need a 17-step process to create and then tick off "read office memo"?

The revolution is not for everyone, of course. Some people, attaining a Zen-like fluidity and uncluttered approach to their technological tools, are perfectly efficient to the point of no longer needing paper. But --if you love your technology-- it might be difficult to beat the addiction, to stop the tinkering, to put away the neat little AJAX web applications, to break away from the scribbling (and Mah Jongg) in your handheld. Your evolved digit musculature might cramp at holding a primitive pencil, or you may balk at the waste of trees (neglible, to be fair, compared to the environmental damage caused by outmoded computer equipment). Or you may even be forced to use a company extranet which allocates and subdivides your time into scheduled nuggets of productivity, no exceptions please!

Seeking a balance
Don't assume that the revolution advocates leaving it all behind for analog. It's far easier to bring an iPod aboard a bus, for example, than your French horn, and chances are that you'd disturb far less people with a stirring medley of your favourite Motley Crue songs. While I do carry around a Day Runner planner or a Hipster PDA, I still use a Palm for MP3s, ebooks and news, and I do spend nearly a hundred hours a week in front of a computer -- such a thing is unavoidable in my work. However, it's all about striking a balance, and avoiding the lure of using technology purely for its own sake, especially when your productivity is on the line and suffering. Ask yourself, do you want to spend all your valuable time just figuring out how to use your valuable time?

What are you waiting for?
If this sounds like you, do yourself a favour. Throw off your shackles, take up the torch, grab yourself a nice little organiser (you can make your own customised D*I*Y Planner, if you wish) and a Pilot G2 pen, and try an analog productivity system for a full week. Use it to manage your tasks, keep track of your appointments, take notes during meetings, brainstorm, and even doodle aimlessly in the pursuit of inspiration. You might even find yourself rousing your neighbours and calling for a change....

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Jeffrey Davidson said...

I work in a small firm of consultants specializing in software requirements, and about half the group carries around little, leather-bound notebooks, the pen and paper kind.

Just this week Joyce walked in with hers and she said, "I found that I haven't been retaining information. I'm such a good touch typist it just goes in one ear and out through my fingers, but nothing was staying in my head. But when I take the action of writing the information down I learn so much faster."

Maybe it's different for those of you younger and fresher to the job world, and I don't consider myself old. But I know my retention and my service to clients is better when I stick with the old fashion stuff. Pen and paper.

Anonymous said...

I work in a FranklinCovey store here in the midwest, and at least once a shift--at least once, and I've had as many as four people in one hour--somebody comes in and says something along the lines of, "I love my PDA, but I really, really need to get back into paper."

Working for FC, I was aghast to see that you're a DayRunner user...but I see you're a Pilot G2 fan, too, so all is forgiven. I carry a zipper pouch with all eight colors of G2d in my Franklin planner.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey: I don't thinks it's a matter of "younger and fresher"--I think we all (at least all of us who started writing in grade school) imprint better while writing. It may not be every individual's ideal way to learn, but it works.

Anonymous said...

I like to convert the Hipster PDA to a pocketmod, makes it easier to manage. here's the link www.pocketmod.com

Anonymous said...

I like to convert the Hipster PDA to a pocketmod, makes it easier to manage. here's the link www.pocketmod.com

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the double post. But this site should give feedback when you post a comment. It just seemed that I entered the "word verification" wrong. There really needs to be another method for verification. It's a huge usability problem, and not accessable. But I digress.

Unknown said...


I agree!

Anonymous said...

This couldn't be more true. I have linked to this post in my blog, Paper Notes In A Digital World.

Anonymous said...

One more reason - SW S*cks ...

Really - if 'organizer' software for the PDAs, etc. were even _halfway_ decent, the advantages of information density/portability, the ability to edit & update, and to enter once use many places/formats would easily blow away paper planners.

However today's organizer SW is so a) limiting, and
b) clumsy,
that a paper planner - almost any paper planner - IS actually more efficient, and more effective.

I wish it weren't so because the potential is there for digital forms to be SO much better. But Nooo... Sigh.

Unknown said...

I agree completely -- and surprisingly, so does Jeff Veen, who manages design at Google.

Check out Merlin Mann's interview with Jeff.

Seeker said...

I really worked on this question when I switched organizers - I really wanted a paper one because I'm a doodler and sketcher by nature. But I could never get past the question - what do you do for backup?

During this time period, my wife lost her everpresent dayplanner and was more than slightly concerned about the logged appointments she would be surprised with in the coming years and the fact that she had no billing information for contract clients - relying strictly on memory.

Meanwhile, my data was in my organizer (a windows smartphone), on my desktop in Outlook, a copy backed up to my home server and a copy of data pushed out to Google calendar/contacts. I make one update in one place and everything syncs.

Sure running out of batteries sucks and I don't enjoy text entry. I get around that by dictating to Jott and properly setting up the appointment/contact later. But I figure I'm going to maintain my phone's charge by the virtue of what it is. Ideas I dictate to Jott, since it saves me the trouble of transcribing, for the most part.

I wanted to be a paper guy again. But I just couldn't see it happen.

Nicole said...

Same here: struggled with Palm & Outlook, Palm & iCal, GTDwiki, and what else. Finally settled on Moleskines, because paper is faster to quickly scribble some notes, and slower when I need to force myself to think. Works great for me!

Anonymous said...

The thing that really made me reject PDAs was the constant software churn.

Upgrade your computer? Install new computer software. Then discover that something is slightly incompatible with the software on the PDA. Upgrade PDA software. Then discover the new PDA software doesn't work properly with some of the other older PDA software... and so on...

I now believe that because of this 'churn' factor, PDAs will never actually be viable, or at the very least won't be viable until all PDA software is more-or-less the same, and communicates using the same protocols; like web-browsers and email-clients are now.

Maybe I'm being pessimistic; perhaps this churn issue will go away within the next 5 years. Until then, it's paper for me.

Unknown said...

I'm with you CaptainReality -- but the iPhone seems to be raising the bar.