Episode: The Most Overlooked Productivity Solution
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Michael Hyatt: Listeners of this podcast know I’m a huge fan of technology. I’ve been an early adopter of nearly every productivity device, and I’m constantly on the lookout for new apps, new gadgets that can make me (and you) more productive. Well, in this podcast I’m excited to share one of my favorite technologies. Using this device will save you tons of time. It will also improve your concentration, help you think more carefully, and reinforce your commitment to your most important tasks. Plus it’ll aid your memory.
It’s such a marvel of productivity I’d be surprised if it didn’t take the tech world by storm. That said, this revolutionary technology is incredibly disruptive. Like most inventions, it has already displaced a host of other technologies, even entire industries, but by now most of us are used to creative disruption. We’ve seen it before with computers and smartphones, and self-driving cars are now on the horizon.
I think it’s fair to warn you this breakthrough invention has been highly controversial. The technology I’m about to share has been labeled a clear sign of societal degeneration, but that’s a criticism we’ve often heard of new tech. The same charge was made about television and then the Internet, and I think it’s best to judge the technology on its own merits, not on the way people misuse it.
Now I know listeners depend on me to screen technology for them, and I take that seriously. If you tend to be a middle or late adopter of new tech, this podcast is for you. I’ve tried this device thoroughly and tested it in every context, from office productivity to self-management and even communications. I promise it’ll perform way above expectations, and I’m ready to give it an enthusiastic thumbs up. So what is this groundbreaking, controversial technology that has disrupted an entire economy and permanently changed the way we do things?
Megan Hyatt Miller: Dad, are you talking about paper?
Michael: It’s paper!
Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.
Megan: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.
Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work, succeed at life, and lead with confidence. In this episode, we’re going to talk about the benefits of using the surprisingly up-to-date technology called, yes, paper.
Megan: We all want to be more productive, but we’re drowning in a sea of productivity apps and hacks. We’ll show you why every leader should re-adopt the tried-and-true technology of paper. By using paper in some situations you can avoid wasting time and money on solutions that don’t work and focus on your most important goals.
Coming up on today’s program we’ll explain the five benefits of writing with pen and paper. We’ll also hear from author Mark Kurlansky on the history of paper, and we’ll have a visit from David Sax, author of The Revenge of Analog, to talk about why people love non-digital solutions.
Dad, I have to be honest. When I saw we were going to do this episode it surprised me a little bit, because you are the technology guy. You’re all about the apps, all about the devices. In fact, today I forgot my iPad at home and you had like four lined up, charged, ready to go.
Michael: True story.
Megan: And you said, “Pick the one in the back. It’s the best one.” I don’t even have one. I don’t even know where it is. So this is kind of out of left field a little bit. Why are we talking about this today?
Michael: Because I’ve recently rediscovered the value of pen and paper. The reason is that I was getting sucked down this rabbit hole of digital devices where I was in a blizzard of notifications, distractions, things that were keeping me from getting my work done. I realized there has to be a better way. I’m not ready to become Amish and swear off electronic devices…
Megan: Not yet.
Michael: Not yet. I think you have to have an intelligent approach to this. The truth is paper is the best possible technology for some things. Not everything. I still use my electronic devices, as you mentioned and kind of made fun of me that I have all of these iPads and stuff, and I’m looking across the room at three monitors on my stand-up desk. So yeah, I love my technology, but paper has its place, and that’s what we want to talk about.
Megan: So why do you say paper is a technology? I think that’s probably surprising to a lot of our listeners.
Michael: Well, it is a technology. Webster’s dictionary says technology is “the science of the application of knowledge to practical purposes for applied science.” That applies to paper as well as smartphones. Paper is a technology, and when it started it was revolutionary. Rather than me give you all the background, let’s listen to Mark Kurlansky. He’s the author of Paper: Paging Through History. He’ll give us his perspective.
Mark Kurlansky: Paper is a technology, and it shows that technologies are adopted as needed. A lot of people have this idea that technologies are just adopted for the fun of it and then they change society, but actually, as society changes it calls up technologies to service those changes. Papermaking was adopted when there was a demand for a better material to produce more of the written word.
There were many things that went before it: bark and bamboo and papyrus. None of these things are paper. Paper is an organic material with a fiber called cellulose, which is ground down and mixed with a 2 percent solution with water, poured over a screen. Randomly woven fiber is the definition of paper, and then it’s just peeled off of a screen. It’s a rather interesting idea. We don’t know exactly how it developed, but it worked extremely well, and it still works well. Paper is not disappearing.
Another myth about technology is that new technologies always replace old technologies, but quite often they just create an alternative, the way you can now have television or radio. You can download. You can have CDs. You can even have vinyl records. The same thing with paper. You can have books. You can have ebooks. Ebooks are not replacing regular books. We’re just creating an alternative.
Offices seem to have a great fondness for paper. Paper has many unique characteristics, one of which is it can’t be hacked. That is increasingly becoming interesting in security issues like creating codes. They’re often done on paper now. Law offices still use a great deal of paper. When they used to talk about how there would be a paperless office, they forgot to notice that all of these computers were all attached to printers. Paper will endure for the foreseeable future.
Michael: The reality is that existing tech is never fully displaced. Think about it. The light bulb didn’t make candles go away. Television didn’t eliminate radio. Tom Hanks (I just read this this week) still writes on a typewriter, and we still use ancient tech every single day, like knives, forks, spoons, candles, leather belts, razors, the wheel. Maybe you’ve heard of it. So the paperless revolution never really happened. The average office worker uses 10,000 sheets a year. That’s hard to believe.
Megan: It is really hard to believe, because we were told even 5 or 10 years ago that would just be totally obsolete, and the truth is it isn’t. There’s still some need for physical documentation. If you’ve ever been through any kind of government process… That’s not going to be paperless anytime soon.
Michael: Yeah, here’s another stat that’s interesting. Americans use more than 90 million tons of paper each year. Average over 700 pounds per person. That’s a lot of trees.
Megan: That’s, by the way, like a horse.
Megan: That’s about how much a horse weighs.
Michael: Did you catch what I did there? “Whoa”?
Michael: Print book sales are rising. This is one of the most interesting things to me. When I was in the publishing industry (I’ve been out of it now for about seven years), I remember someone on our board predicted that at least 50 percent of all book sales would be electronic within the next five years. We kind of had a big debate on the board about this, because I didn’t think that was true.
As it turned out, it got up to about 25 percent of all book sales. Then it started decreasing, and now it has leveled out at maybe about 20 percent or so. It’s more prevalent in certain kinds of genres like fiction, but the point is paper didn’t go away. There’s something about holding an artifact, a paper book in your hand that evidently, for most people, is more pleasing than an electronic book.
Megan: The truth is sometimes older tech is the best option. New can be improved, but not always. Sometimes there are unintended consequences to technology (and by sometimes I mean usually) that take a pretty long time to weed out and eliminate, if they’re ever even eliminated in the first place. If there’s one thing we know about paper, there’s not really any downside other than the environmental cost we have to be conscious of, certainly, and the fact that if you were actually trying to carry around that 700 pounds of paper at any one time that would be impossible.
Michael: Especially without a horse.
Megan: That’s right. So why do you think we get stuck on what’s new and feel like what’s new is always the best solution?
Michael: I think there is this preoccupation with new as a value. In other words, something that’s new has more value than something that’s old. This wasn’t always the case in the history of the world, but it’s definitely the case in more recent times. If it’s younger it’s better. If it’s newer it’s better. This is why, by the way, interestingly, I don’t even put the date prominently on the top of my blog posts, because people discount it if it’s too old. It could be totally relevant, evergreen content… I always put the date at the bottom of the post for reference, but I don’t want to predispose somebody at the top of the post by making them dismiss it because it’s older.
Megan: That is a great point.
Michael: Just because it’s new doesn’t make it better, but we have to be aware of that cultural value.
Megan: Dad, I have to share this quote with you that I love from Malcolm Gladwell that says, “The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper and reimagines the world.” Today, you’re going to help us reimagine the sheet of paper.
Michael: Exactly. We’re taking a step back and reimagining and valuing that sheet of paper.
Megan: So let’s get to the four benefits of writing on paper.
Michael: The first benefit is that it puts you in a less distracting environment. Part of the reason people can’t focus, part of the reason they’re so distracted and can’t get anything meaningful done is because they put themselves smack dab in the middle of this digital environment where there are all kinds of things vying for their attention. I’m not against digital. I use both. I have a hybrid system I use, but a digital environment brings distractions.
For example, 80 percent of us own mobile devices, and 70 percent keep them within eye contact at work. The biggest offender is messaging. Seventy-five percent of employees admit to wasting at least two hours per day on distractions. Screen time is the distraction zone. Now, again, I’m not opposed to it, but you have to be careful with it. When you want to work on something and be undistracted, sometimes paper is the best tool.
Megan: Well, how often have you picked up your phone to go to your calendar app to check what your next appointment is and ended up disoriented on Facebook, not sure how you got there, not sure what you were looking for in the first place, and you’re probably now late for your appointment.
Michael: Totally. I think we have to realize what’s happening to us at a biochemical level, because every time we jump out of focus we get a little bit of a dopamine hit. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that gives us a pleasurable feeling, and the more we get that feeling the more addicted we get to it. This is why people are constantly checking applications, checking notifications, and all of that, and it wars against us.
Megan: You have to almost literally hack your way through the distractions to maintain your focus, and it takes an enormous amount of energy and attention to pull that off. It’s like running a gauntlet. It reminds me of that show American Ninja Warrior where they run those funny gauntlets. It’s like that’s what you’re trying to do every day to be productive. You have things swinging at you and trying to trip you and all the rest, and it’s just incredibly difficult.
Michael: Well, that’s, again, what the value of paper is, because paper doesn’t come with all of those distractions.
Megan: Right. You can just do one singular thing. So what are some tasks that require total focus?
Michael: Well, certainly anything that requires a lot of deep thinking, where you’re trying to process something, come up with a creative solution; some forms of writing like journaling, reflection, long-range planning, even short-range daily planning, brainstorming, where you’re trying to diagram something or come up with a framework to make sense of something… StrengthsFinder calls that intellection, and I think it’s a good word for it. Anytime you’re trying to create a framework or a model of understanding the world or a process, sometimes writing that on paper can be very helpful.
Megan: I think it’s why many of us love to use whiteboards. It’s not exactly paper, but it’s very similar.
Michael: Same concept.
Megan: Yeah, same concept, rather than taking notes or trying to sketch out ideas on our computer. You try to do that on your computer and somehow it just doesn’t translate, but if you can have that tactile experience of writing on a whiteboard or a piece of paper and trying to show somebody something or show yourself something, it sort of figures itself out somehow, magically. I don’t know how that works, but it’s true.
Michael: Yeah, totally. The second benefit is it helps you think more carefully. The thing about writing longhand is that it slows you down. In a world that values speed like it values newness, there’s value in slowing down so you can reflect and think. When you slow down you gain clarity, and clarity is one of the things our clients tell us over and over again they seek the most. When you get clarity you can accelerate your results, but until you get clarity it’s like slogging through mud. Writing longhand helps slow you down. Speed is not always beneficial.
Megan: I’ve experienced in my own life an exhaustion around speed. Sometimes it feels like the need to consume and digest information and then have thoughts about it is so demanding. There’s such a requirement that it just seems to be faster and faster and faster, and it doesn’t really lend itself to high-quality thinking.
There are certain kinds of thinking (for example, making decisions or reflection or creativity) that really don’t match well with speed. They need some time to work themselves out, and writing longhand is a great way to do that. It helps you to have time to figure things out along the way, and the writing actually becomes part of the creative process instead of just a means to an end.
Michael: I had this experience just yesterday. You and Joel and I had that meeting where we were trying to come up with that delegation form. Once we hung up, I decided to try to map that out on the computer, so I was using a drawing program to do that. After a while I just went, “No. I have to stop.” So I grabbed a piece of paper and started jotting the thing out on paper. It slowed me down. It was a completely different experience. It changed the way my thinking was working.
By the way, writing by hand fires the brain differently. There has been research done on this. There was a study by Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington that showed that schoolchildren writing essays longhand generate more ideas than those writing on a computer. Here’s why. The act of forming letters activates multiple regions of the brain. It’s not surprising, really. When you sit there and type, that’s going to activate one part of your brain, but when you actually write, it’s going to involve more senses. It takes more coordination, and it’s going to light up different parts of the brain.
Megan: It makes sense, because it’s multisensory, and we know that is directly related to how the brain functions. It’s like we think we’re smarter now because we have these technologies. I was listening to a podcast the other day, and the guy on the podcast was talking about the narcissism of our time, thinking that we’re late in human history and, therefore, the things we have discovered kind of eclipse all of the things that have come before. In fact, there is intelligence in the human body and, for example, writing and forming letters that connects to the brain in a way our digital technologies haven’t been able to replicate.
Michael: It kind of comes back to the thing about newness is not necessarily good. Speed is not necessarily good. It’s like I quoted in a recent webinar I did. There’s a difference between being busy and being productive, and there’s a difference between fast and being effective. Sometimes slowing ourselves down is the most effective, important thing we can do. It’s like that quote “Thoughts disentangle themselves passing over lips and through pencil tips.” Not so much with typing.
Megan: I can type really fast, but that doesn’t give me clarity.
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Recently we’ve made some changes to LeaderBox, and our customers are loving it. The change I’m the most excited about is the enhanced activation guide. First of all, it has an easy-to-follow daily reading plan so you can read through two books a month in just 30 minutes a day. It has a helpful summary of key points, thought-provoking questions, a call to action on learning discoveries, a list of additional resources, and a lot of note-taking space.
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Megan: So far we see that writing on paper puts you in a less distracting environment and forces you to think more carefully. Let’s move on to the third benefit.
Michael: The third benefit is that it reinforces your commitment. One of the things where I really value writing on paper is with my goals and my tasks and my appointments. This is why I use the Full Focus Planner to structure my day, because it gives me the opportunity to do exactly that. When I write down my goals or I’m writing down my daily tasks or my daily appointments, it reinforces my motivation. In other words, I get to think about that task again. I get to think about that appointment again.
I use Google Calendar too, but for today’s appointments I’m going to take them from Google Calendar and write them on the “appointments” section of the daily page. That gives me a chance to recommit to that appointment, to say, “Wait a second. I made this choice. I’m not a victim. This is something I had put on my calendar, and this is something I’m committed to engage in.” Same thing with my tasks. It gives me a chance to own them in a way I don’t when they’re there on the calendar or there on the task list.
Megan: It’s almost like they’re outside of yourself. We also do this in our activation workshops. We provide a workbook for our clients to go through during the day, a physical, printed workbook, and there are worksheets they complete, and very often there’s some component of those exercises they do that’s intended to bring about a breakthrough of some kind.
There’s something about recording your breakthrough in your own handwriting that is very different than it would be if you were just in the notes app on your phone or taking notes in Evernote or something like that, as much as we like that. We really feel like writing reinforces the breakthroughs people are having, so we encourage them to use our notebook during those activation workshops when they’re intentionally learning and growing and being coached rather than using their computers.
Michael: The funny thing about the last activation workshops we were doing, the Best Year Ever activation workshops where we talk about goal achievement, is we had them write their goals out for the year several times during the course of the day. It would have been easy if we had provided a digital solution to just do it once and forget about it.
Megan: Right. That wasn’t the most efficient way to do it, for example.
Michael: That’s right. It wasn’t efficient, but it was highly effective, because people almost imprinted this on their brain, on their heart, so they got the goals. It reinforced it and reinforced their commitment to those goals.
Megan: What do you think is the value of hybrid solutions? For example, pairing analog with digital for calendar and task management. We get that question a lot.
Michael: Well, you have to use the right tool for the right job. The great thing about a digital calendar is you can share it with people. You can make sure everybody is in sync within the organization. Things are easy to move around when things change, but again, it’s also easy to get lost in that and not really see today for how you need to see it and be committed to it in the way you need to be committed. That’s why for today’s appointments I go ahead and put them in my Full Focus Planner. By the way, once a quarter I write all of my commitments out for that entire quarter in the monthly calendar section.
Megan: Kind of your big rocks, so to speak.
Michael: Yeah, the big rocks, because I want to reinforce to myself what’s coming. It’s kind of like a map. I want to see the terrain before I traverse it. Does that make sense?
Megan: Yep, it does. So writing reinforces commitment. That’s the third benefit of using paper. Let’s move on to number four.
Michael: The fourth benefit is that it aids memory. In other words, when you write it on paper you’re more likely to remember it.
Megan: That is so true.
Michael: It’s so true. In fact, I use this as a hack for things I don’t want to forget. I could just record it in Evernote, but I will write it on paper in my Full Focus Planner because I know I won’t forget it. There’s, again, that whole thing about imprinting it on my memory. By the way, the science on this is pretty clear. There’s a very well-known study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer. In fact, I was just reading about this again today.
University students who took longhand notes did much better on exams than those using a laptop, and the reason for that is the laptop users simply recorded the lectures verbatim (in other words, like a transcript), but those who wrote longhand were forced to interact with the content to kind of interpret it and to write down what was memorable to them.
So they processed it analytically rather than merely recording it and not really thinking about it. You can take a transcript without thinking about it at all. You can probably be daydreaming and do it, but when you’re writing it longhand you can’t do that. You really have to be thinking and concentrating to do it.
Megan: So, Dad, in what context do you personally write to reinforce your memory?
Michael: Meeting notes. I’m always taking meeting notes longhand because it gives me a chance to process it, to think what needs to be done, to interact with it, and stay engaged in the meeting.
Megan: Now you’re not taking meeting minutes. You’re taking notes about the things that are important to you.
Michael: Things that are important to me or things I want to follow up on or questions I have or whatever it is. When I attend a conference I always take the meetings longhand. Now I may come home and scan those into Evernote, but I always take them at the conference longhand.
Megan: I like to do that, by the way, because I’m able to draw connections, like little arrows or other things. It just enables me to make connections that visually are not possible within the confines of some kind of word processor.
Michael: I agree. Here’s another one: shopping and to-do lists. I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to develop a workflow of how to get a task into Todoist or Nozbe or Evernote or whatever I’m using at the time, and it’s more work than it’s worth. The juice is not worth the squeeze. It takes forever to do it. Just to grab a notebook like the Full Focus Planner that I always have at my side and jot the thing down… Then I’m done with it. I can forget about it.
Megan: That’s so much easier.
Michael: It’s just too much work to try to use an electronic solution for that. Novelist Jack London wrote, “Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.”
Megan: There you go. So, Dad, you’ve covered the first four benefits of writing with paper, but I’d like to take the lead on the fifth one, and I’ve even brought some props.
Michael: All right. Take it away.
Megan: The fifth benefit is that it’s satisfying. Writing by hand is inherently humanizing.
Michael: That’s true.
Megan: The electronic world is so sterile in so many ways. All of the screens look the same. The keyboards are alike. There’s no feel. There’s no texture (unless, of course, you count smooth glass as texture, which I personally do not). But paper reminds us we’re physical beings. It kind of returns us to ourselves in a way that is difficult to explain but we all know is intuitively true.
There’s something about the texture and tone of paper. It involves touch and sometimes even smell, and, for me, it has kind of a centering effect. It brings me back into the present. If I pull out a notepad or my Full Focus Planner or a physical card I’m going to write to someone, there’s something about that physical, multisensory experience that just brings me back to where I am right now and what I am doing. It’s focusing.
Michael: Well, there’s something about receiving a handwritten note. Somebody can send you an email thank you, and they send you a paper one, and it’s like ten to one in terms of value. Do you feel that way?
Megan: Oh my gosh. Totally. Because writing is intensely personal. By the time you get a card from someone, they’ve made individual choices about the paper they want to use, the type of pen they want to use, or a pencil. Just pencil or pen is a very personal decision. Then you get into what kind of pen and what kind of pencil. Just like musicians have a favorite model of guitar or violin, pens are personal devices. You have never met someone more passionate than a fountain pen user.
Michael: I’m not a fountain pen user, but that’s like a religion.
Megan: It’s like a religion. I’m kind of like a “fountain pen light” user. You guys can’t see this, but I’m holding three pens. My fountain pen of choice, which is kind of the cheap and easy version, is the Pilot Varsity. Larry, who is one of our writers for the show, is cringing right now because he is an avid fountain pen user. That’s really not up to your standards, Larry. Sorry to disappoint you.
Michael: Your brother-in-law would be disappointed too.
Megan: Today I have the microphone so it gets to be my pen. The other one I love is the Pentel Sign Pen. This is the felt tip, presidential signature kind of pen. I love how it feels to drag this across a good cotton-finish paper. Those of you who know what I’m talking about, you know that feeling. It feels so good.
Michael: How could you be holding out on me? I’m your dad. For all of these years.
Megan: I can’t let you have all of the secrets. I have to keep some things to myself.
Michael: What’s the third one?
Megan: The third one is sort of my everyday go-to, and that’s the Pilot G2 0.7. I only write in blue, occasionally purple. Never black, never red, never green. Especially never green. I don’t know. There’s something about the blue. It’s very personal.
Michael: Well, I use the Pilot FriXion pen, which is erasable ink.
Megan: I use that as well.
Michael: That will change your life, because you get the advantage of ink but you can erase it, so if you make a mistake you can still erase it, which is awesome. Now fair warning here. People have reported that if you leave them in a hot car the ink will disappear, but I’ve heard, though I’ve not tested, if you put it in a freezer it will reappear again.
Megan: That sounds like a fun science project for the kids. The point here is that nothing expresses your personality like handwriting and the instruments you choose. There’s a lot of meaning that is left by those we love in their written artifacts. Think about letters, journals, and recipes from your grandparents or family members who have passed away. It’s like having a little piece of them that’s left with you. Bottom line, it just feels good to write, and it’s incredibly calming. It’s just a pleasurable, calming activity.
Michael: Let’s play another excerpt from that interview we did with David Sax, because he talks about why people love analog things, and I think it’s important to hear.
David Sax: People like analog things because, at the end of the day, we are analog creatures. We may work with computers. We may entertain ourselves with computers. We may communicate with all sorts of software or hardware, but we are physical beings in a physical world, and we respond to things we can hold and touch and control with our hands and our bodies in a much more visceral way than we do with something on a screen.
That very easily explains the appeal of something like a paper journal, like a Moleskine journal or a notebook or a pad of paper or even a scrap of paper. We’ve grown up being able to use and manipulate these things. If you put a crayon and a piece of paper in front of a child, they’re going to start making marks on it.
That goes up to, in later years, when we’re working, even if we have all the best technology at our disposal, sometimes in order to get that idea out, in order to work with it and process it in a way that works for us, that physical interaction, whether it’s paper, a whiteboard, or a face-to-face conversation, is often what’s the most efficient for us, the most instinctual.
Megan: So today we’ve talked about five benefits of writing with paper, and we’ve learned why even high achievers should consider adopting this tried-and-true technology. As we come in for a landing, I just want to remind you that analog technologies are sometimes the best solutions to your productivity problem. Don’t be afraid to use what works, even if it’s not brand new. Dad, any final thoughts?
Michael: I would say that paper is the new technology, in a sense. What’s old has become new, and don’t be afraid to give it a try. Test it. Use a hybrid system, and see if you’re not more productive, more focused, and it works for you.
Megan: Great. As we close, I want to thank our sponsor LeaderBox. It provides automated personal development in a box. Check it out at leaderbox.com. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, you can get the show notes and a full transcript online at leadto.win.
Michael: Thanks again for joining us on Lead to Win. If you like the show, please tell your friends and colleagues about it, and also please leave a review of the show wherever you listen to podcasts.
Megan: This program is copyrighted by Michael Hyatt & Company. All rights reserved. Our producer is Nick Jaworski.
Michael: Our writers are Joel Miller and Lawrence Wilson.
Megan: Our recording engineer is Mike Burns.
Michael: Our production assistant is Aleshia Curry.
Megan: And our intern is Winston.
Michael: We invite you to join us again for another episode next week, when we’ll share with you a beginner’s guide to journaling. Until then, lead to win.