I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to remove friction from my life. For years, I turned to technology. I read productivity blogs. I bought and endlessly fine-tuned productivity applications. I set hotkeys. I wrote scripts.
Automation helped me tremendously (and still does), but it also hurt me. There is always more to automate, and, in my case, the endless quest to remove friction actually became the friction. It was the worst kind of friction: procrastination disguised as productivity.
The more I automated, the more time I spent shuffling information and tasks around instead of actually creating. It was hard for me to make the jump from planning to producing. For all of its downsides, friction does have a way of jolting the brain into problem-solving mode.
So I decided to focus less on removing friction and more on finding the right kind of friction. I found it by doing something that I had been working hard for years to avoid: putting pen to paper.
When was the last time what you stared at a blank sheet of paper with nothing but a pen in your hand? No Google. No Wikipedia. Just you and the thoughts in your head. For me, it had been years. It was embarrassingly hard at first, but once the ideas started flowing, it felt great. It forced my brain to pull its weight rather than just riding along on the automation and web search train.
Of course, all of those obsessive tendencies I directed at automation had to go somewhere. So now I obsess about pens and paper. I acquire and tinker with fountain pens and put a bit too much thought into what type of paper I’m writing on.
It’s different, though. I don’t pretend it’s productive. It’s a hobby. OK, it’s an obsession, but it’s an obsession that doesn’t compete for my brainpower the way that chasing “productivity” did. I do it in the evenings when I have little brainpower left to direct towards creating. It lets my senses of sight, touch, and smell out to play a bit after a day in front of a computer monitor and keyboard.
The right priorities also inherently fall into line. Pens and paper aren’t very interesting if you aren’t doing something with them. I rarely use them to procrastinate for more than a couple of minutes. Instead, the act of creating–filling that blank page with ink–brings me closer to my next opportunity to try a new fountain pen ink or to finally take that Japanese notebook I’ve been saving off the shelf.
There are many ways to talk yourself out of using pens and paper.
Your handwriting is terrible? Mine was too. You will be surprised how fast it comes back with use. There are also some excellent books to help you get back on track.
You always lose pens and never have one when you need it? Buy yourself a nice pen. And a nice pen isn’t a $900 Mont Blanc. It’s a $15 Pilot Metropolitan. You won’t lose it any more than you lose your wallet, keys, or anything else your mind subconsciously deems valuable.
What’s that, you’re terrible at taking notes and organizing thoughts on paper? Well, spend 10 minutes checking out Ryder Carroll’s “Bullet Journal” approach or Patrick Rhone’s “Dash Plus” system. Either will give your thoughts the structure they need while still leaving plenty of room for you to evolve into an approach that is perfect for you.
Pens and paper aren’t the answer for to everything. I would be lost without my electronic calendar perfectly in sync between my devices, and I do still love to tinker with the latest Mac and iOS apps. But if it’s been a while, give writing by hand another try. You may be surprised by how pens and paper can shift your brain into a forgotten gear and give you the break from the connected world that you may not even realize that you need.
Doug Lane is the mastermind behind Modern Stationer, a site dedicated to pens, paper, writing accoutrements of all sorts, and the power of analog tools. Follow him on Twitter, or write him a letter—for real.