I first noticed something was off when I went to pay my rent one month. The window for a timely online transfer of funds was closing, so to get the money to my landlord in time, I’d have to do something unusual. I took out my checkbook, grabbed a pen and started writing the date.
It felt weird. My hand cramped a little, churning out numbers and letters with the slightest – but still noticeable – discomfort. My handwriting sucked. It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t actually written anything by hand in a long, long time. Just a few years earlier, I kept a paper journal by my bed and would buy three-packs of Moleskin notebooks for brainstorming, sketching and jotting things down. What happened?
Over the course of the last four or five years, several little computers have found their way into my life. Bit by bit, my professional and creative existence made the transition to an entirely digital universe. At my old job managing digital publishing for a newspaper, the iPad soon replaced my spiral notebook in meetings. Then I left the print world to work on the Internet full-time. I could even sign my freelance contracts with my finger on an iPad.
Who needed paper? Isn’t the future amazing? Look, more tweets. Wait, what was I saying?
Our Pixel-Based Lives
Before long, my documents, journal, blog post drafts and photos were living in some cloud-based repository that was readily accessible from any of my devices, at least one of which I kept by my bedside (supplanting the paper journal, magazines and alarm clock with apps). Instead of keeping a “to do” list on paper, I tapped important items into the Reminders app on my phone, which automatically synced with my iPad and laptop, each of which would then buzz with a notification at a time and even place of my choosing.
It’s all pretty miraculous if you think about it. But while this digital transformation introduced heretofore inconceivable levels of convenience and productivity into my life, some things can get lost in all that digital noise. At the very least, I should be able to comfortably write the goddamn date.
Keeping One Foot In The Analog World
When I first met my girlfriend, we would cowork from cafes together. Even though she runs a popular local blog in Philadelphia and spends much of her time on the Internet, I noticed that she hadn’t taken the digital plunge quite as deeply as I had. As I typed away on my laptop in the cafe, periodically referencing a propped up iPad, she closed her MacBook’s lid and cracked open a Moleskin notebook and started writing down important-looking notes. She even had a paper-based planner, eschewing the cloud-synced, location-aware multi-device wonders of iCal and Reminders in favor of something decidedly more old school.
By this time, I had already resolved to hand-write things more often. And when I did, I found I was better able to focus on the task at hand, far away from the dinging notifications, crowded inboxes, social status updates and ever-proliferating browser tabs. Watching another digital citizen put a pen to paper and get things done just as effectively, if not more so, just confirmed what I already knew: Life wasn’t meant to be lived entirely in some company’s cloud. And when it comes to productivity, we need more than apps.
The Science Of Writing Vs. Typing
A few years back, there were a bunch of stories in the press about the science of writing things by hand. As it turns out, our brains work differently when we form letters with a hand-held implement – and we learn more effectively than when we type. This makes total sense. I’ve long noticed that when I’m writing in a paper journal, it mentally feels different than when I’m typing out my thoughts on a computer. I thought it had something to do with the more focused nature of paper vs. connected devices. As it turns out, there’s more to it than that.
Writing stimulates a bunch of cells at the base of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS acts as a filter for everything your brain needs to process, giving more importance to the stuff that you’re actively focusing on at the moment—something that the physical act of writing brings to the forefront.
Meanwhile, a series of studies conducted in the last few years have indicated that students learn more effectively when they form letters and shapes by hand as opposed to doing so digitally.
Technology has a way of augmenting our imperfect brains and making us more productive. Personally, I still prefer to have a notification ding with a reminder to do something I committed to several days ago. In some ways, all this tech does enhance our increasingly complex lives. It makes it easier to navigate, harder to lose track of things, more convenient to stay in touch and nearly effortless to discover new places.
But just like it’s still nice to curl up with a book made of trees or play a vinyl record, there’s still room for the analog in our productive lives. Sure, that IFTTT recipe connecting your Evernote account to Dropbox or Gmail looks awesome. But don’t forget to pick up a pen from time to time.
Lead photo by puuikibeach.