Most of us spend many hours each day at a computer. As digital tools have improved over the last few decades, their disadvantages have diminished considerably. As they have become more portable, reliable, compatible and universally used, they have become the default way of working.
However, as negative health effects of such long stretches of screen time are becoming increasingly clear, we need to rethink how much of our work really needs to be digital.
The first step is to consider the comparative advantages and disadvantages of digital and analogue tools:
The main disadvantages of using computers, tablets and mobile phones when compared with a simple notebook and pen or pencil are as follows:
Firstly, there are the various frustrations we have with technology – when things don’t work properly, won’t connect to networks, when batteries run out, and so on. That’s not to say that pens can’t run out of ink too.
Secondly, because computers are so versatile, most of us can accomplish the majority of our work tasks while sat in one position and without moving anything other than our fingers. Writing by hand at least encourages a little more movement, though you wouldn’t want to be doing that all day either.
Finally, there is something about the act of writing or drawing by hand that confers certain advantages. It can be better for creativity, partly because you have to write slower, and you can’t edit as you go (which in other situations would be disadvantages). Writing by hand uses different areas and more of the brain than typing (1). Studies have also shown that we may be better able to recall information when we take notes by hand, rather than by typing too. (2, 3)
Use cases for analogue tools
So it seems a notepad and pen is the superior choice at various times. Here are some examples:
- Brainstorming ideas
- Draft writing
- Revision and learning
Given that we want to vary our activities and posture throughout the day, we should take these opportunities to get away from our digital devices when we can.
Some tasks might be better suited to digital tools in one situation and writing by hand in another. Here are some examples:
If you’re writing notes for yourself, it will be at least as good to write your notes by hand. However, if you’re taking minutes or in some other situation where you’ll need to share your notes, it’s probably better to type them.
As most people can type quicker than they can write by hand, you’re more likely to write your notes verbatim when typing. While having to paraphrase as you write your notes may be better for your recall, it may be harder for other people to grasp the original meaning. They’re also less likely to be able to read your handwriting, and it’s quicker and easier to share a digital note than a handwritten one.
Personally I love a good To Do list. It makes sense to use a task list app if you want to delegate to others (who use the same app), to filter your tasks (so you don’t have to see everything all at once), or if you want to keep track of your productivity according to your task-completion metrics.
Sometimes I prefer to keep a task list in a book or on a pad on my desk, especially if there’s a long task with multiple steps that I have to complete on my computer. This allows me to work through the tasks without app switching, and gives me a reason to take my hands and eyes off the screen from time to time.
Things to remember:
This one is easy – if I need to remember it long-term it’s got to be stored digitally. If it’s a temporary piece of information I only need for this work session, it can be jotted on a pad on the desk.
Much as I prefer to read a physical book than reading on devices, I don’t feel there’s a justification for routinely printing off long documents, given the amount of paper and ink that is wasted. I tend to take a tablet to some soft seating (or even have a lie down) for a bit of postural variety.
Think about your own work tasks
Have a think about the kinds of tasks you have to do at work, and identify any that could be done just as well, or maybe even better using a pen and paper. Then find the writing tools that suit you, and enjoy some time away from your screens.