Digital vs. Analog: The Battle of Productivity Systems

A couple weeks ago I was honored to be mentioned on an episode of Mac Power Users about task management. Listening to David and Katie talk about task management systems got me thinking about how my system has evolved over time. One of the most common questions I hear from people who are interested in developing some sort of system to manage their work is whether they should go analog (paper, pencil, notebooks, folders, etc.) or digital (software, paperless, tablets, phones, etc.).

There's a certain concreteness, a solidity, to using an analog system. Shuffling papers, arranging notes, and actually manipulating physical material can be a great way to make your system feel more alive and personal. On the other hand, going digital means being able to handle more information more efficiently and being able to always have the entirety of your system close at hand. I used to agonize whether I'd be better off going full-digital or full-analog until I realized that was a stupid false dichotomy. I could, and should, do both.

The ultimate goal of any productivity or work management system should be tied to completing the work itself, not the details of how it's managed. Getting organized is a step on the path to doing meaningful work as well as living an overall more deliberate life. There are no style points to be won for sexy systems, no competitions for who can manage the most information, or who can have the cleanest all-digital or all-analog system. Liberating myself from the mindset that I had to choose one over the other allowed me to take the best from both worlds and craft a system that is intimately tied to the ways I like to think and work.

The Digital

My digital system allows me to capture information at will and with a minimum of effort or friction. It allows me to manage the influx of information that we all seem to have to deal with in a constantly connected world and a work life that never really seems to turn off. The digital components of my system include:

  • Capturing photos with my iPhone that are automatically sent to Evernote via IFTTT (receipts, reminders, paper notes, etc.).
  • Capturing thoughts, next actions, and ideas with the Things iOS app.
  • Using Evernote as a "digital filing cabinet" for storing all archived project materials as well as active reference material.
  • Using Gmail, archiving all emails, and trusting my ability to find anything I might need from my past with some simple searches.
  • Using Things to manage all my active and deferred projects, next actions, and someday/maybe ideas.
  • Using Fantastical to manage my calendar on my computer, iPhone, and iPad.
  • Using Dropbox to store active project documents (which are moved to Evernote once completed).

The digital component of my system allows me to be highly mobile and trust that I can do my work wherever I happen to be. The somewhat ephemeral nature of digital information also allows me to not worry about how much stuff I'm throwing at my system as it's easy to filter and search for what I need. If I were using a paper list to keep track of all my next actions I may be more hesitant to add something minor to it. By using Things I don't feel that hesitancy which allows me to be much more complete with the capture component of my organizational system.

The Analog

The characteristics that make my digital system awesome are also what makes it insufficient for a truly complete organizational system. Since it's so easy to throw a lot of information at it and store it in a simple way I have a ton of information in it. Having to look at my entire system every time I need to make a decision about what to do next would be an extremely draining system. That's one reason I've evolved the analog component of my system.

  • I create a daily index card that has my hard landscape responsibilities (primarily appointments and meetings with their requisite pre-work) written on it. At the start of the day I will also add 2-3 goals for what I want to accomplish today. This notecard is then clipped to the cover of the notebook I carry with me throughout the day.
  • I have a black notebook with perforated pages that I use to take notes throughout the day. At the end of the day I tear out the pages I used and throw them in my physical inbox for processing.
  • My physical inbox is the landing strip for all the physical pieces of information that come into my life. I'll empty the papers from my bag into it at the end of the day, snail mail, and any other physical items I need to process. The inbox gets processed every other day or so.
  • I have a black box with a handful of manila folders for storing my physical reference files. If I can I'll scan something and add it to Evernote but if it's something I feel like I should keep a physical copy of it goes in this box.
  • My whiteboard is attached to the wall next to my desk and it's where I keep some weekly, monthly, and longer term goals listed. I also use sticky tack to mount my pre-made daily index cards during my weekly review. I'll also use it for my first round of mind mapping when planning an article or other project (this article started as a mind map on my whiteboard).
  • I'm experimenting with keeping reusable paper checklists for daily, weekly, and monthly activities I know I want/need to complete. The monthly and weekly checklists are tacked to my whiteboard whereas the daily one usually just sits on my desk or is clipped to my notebook.

The analog component of my system allows me to focus in on a much smaller time frame. I'm able to see my daily goals and simply focus on those instead of having to constantly live inside my relatively massive digital system. It's kind of like going to the bank. I know I have more money than I actually need for the week or day in there so instead of carrying around my entire life savings I just withdraw what I need on a regular basis. My digital system is my bank with the entirety of my information living in it and I withdraw what I need into my analog system on a regular basis.

The linchpin to this system has always been my weekly review. With the weekly review installed into my routine I know that I can let go of my larger system and just focus on getting work done for seven days at a time. Regardless of what has changed in my life or the new information that has been thrown at me, I know I'll take a step back and reassess every week. This frees me up to not use mental cycles constantly thinking about the changes in my life or worrying about what I might be missing -- I know I'll take a look at the whole system soon enough.

If I had a straight analog system I'd worry that I wasn't keeping a truly complete collection of everything I have to do. If I had a straight digital system I'd be distracted by the sheer immensity of the information living in the system. By embracing both I've been able to create something that melds together the best of both.

Photos by Jens Schott Knudsen and Jenni C