The rise of low-tech productivity tools

Last updated on 
October 14, 2020

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From calendar and task organization, to time and to-do list management, there is a whole galaxy of productivity apps available to help you lead a more effective everyday. But for all our reliance on tech, the past decade has witnessed a revival in intentionally slow, analogue productivity tools. People are increasingly picking up pens, buying journals and making long-hand notes to structure and process their performance. So what’s behind the rise of low-tech productivity tools? And is all the inefficiency and time required worth the investment?

The rise of analogue productivity tools

There are several reasons why so many people have turned back to inefficient, long-hand approaches to organizing their daily lives. The first can be seen as simple resistance towards the fast-paced, high-tech lives most of us now lead. Taking out a diary to write carefully considered notes deliberately taps into a deep-seated nostalgia many of us have for a slower pace of life. At a time of such unpredictability, where work and social lives can change overnight, writing notes by hand feels comfortingly real and tangible. With so much of lives playing out in the digital realm, keeping some things simple seems attractively down to earth.

But long-winded productivity tools have seen a resurgence because they can actually be very effective. Multiple studies suggest that taking notes by hand engages the brain in different ways than typing. When we write by hand we need to think about the ways we’re summarizing and paraphrasing the information we’re hearing, and how we organize and structure the concept and vocab. This enhanced cognitive engagement allows us to interact with the information we’re writing in different ways, and can allow for a much deeper understanding of it.

There are other, more profound reasons why people enjoy using analogue tools, too. The simple act of writing can feel enormously therapeutic. It can help alleviate stress, quieten busy minds, and allow us to step away from the noise around us and feel more present. This aspect has been credited for the almost cult-like popularity of the time-consuming bullet journal, which has been billed as a mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity tool. So in this sense, low-tech tools can be seen to provide meditative benefits that digital tools just can’t – and during a time when many of us are more aware of our wellbeing and mental health than ever before, it’s understandable why this is so appealing.

Are low-tech productivity tools better than apps?

Before you ditch your digital calendar or time tracking tool for a pen and paper, it’s important to consider the limitations of low-tech productivity tools. It can be easy to buy into the marketing of mindfulness and slow living, but keeping a daily journaling can quickly become a burden in itself, introducing a new admin pressure into your day that you eventually resent.

For one, long-winded tools are just that – long-winded. Productivity tools like bullet journals, work diaries and productivity journals can be extremely time consuming and laborious. Most of us can type much faster than we can write, so even the simple act of making a to-do list can eat into our day more than it should. Because they’re handwritten, these tools are also harder to analyze, scan and access. You can’t transform your writing into a different format, as you can with digital tools, and you certainly can’t quantify the information or create logs and records in the same way. Being physical records, they also require you to remember to bring them along with you, introducing more “stuff” to stay on top of each day.

Because analogue tools are hand-written, they’re also liable to human error, and if you’re tired or distracted, you might make mistakes or miss certain details. Any hand-written record is also going to be subjective, which can have a huge impact on its effectiveness; if you’re trying to monitor your productivity, for example, you might overlook unconscious behaviors, or not pick up on some of your most time wasting habits. Digital tools, on the other hand, can produce an infallible record of your activity – and because they often do so automatically, they can take some additional responsibility and stress off your shoulders.

As with most things, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to which tools work for us. If you’ve always been a digital-first person, you don’t suddenly have to ditch apps for paper solutions because you think you could use the meditative boost – and neither do you have to pack away your pens and paper if you enjoy using them. If we want, we can have the best of both worlds – using low-tech tools to help process information and feel more grounded, but also using digital tools to take things to the next level, capitalizing on their advantages in speed, accuracy and analysis at scale. It’s ultimately not about fashion or gimmick; productivity tools should materially support and facilitate your day-to-day, otherwise they’re not fulfilling their basic purpose.

✍️ Productivity journaling vs time tracking: what's more useful?

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