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Deep Habits: Work Analog


A Curious Observation

I’ve written enough books at this point to notice trends about the process. Case in point, while many stages of pulling together a book end up going slower than expected, there’s one stage, in particular, that typically goes quicker: polishing the manuscript.

I have a theory for the phenomenon. When I polish a book manuscript, I always work with printouts and a pen (as I also advise, in Straight-A, for paper writing). Because this work doesn’t need a computer, I tend to settle in somewhere conducive to concentration, like The Chair (above), and end up working with more focus for longer sessions than normal.

The magic ingredient, I suspect, is the analog nature of the process. A computer is a portal to near endless distraction. Because we use these machines for so much of our efforts, the staccato rhythm of broken concentration they generate begins to feel natural — as if this is the necessary experience of work.

All it takes, however, is a forced break from the digital — as I experience when polishing my books — to remember the levels of depth we’re missing, and the satisfactions they can bring.

Inspired by this observation, I’ve found myself increasingly trying to carve out tasks that can be done free from a screen. I’m now more likely, for example, to venture to a library with only a notebook to work on a proof, or to leave my laptop in my bag at my office to dig into some paper reviews.

Analog work is underrated. Try it for yourself: you won’t be disappointed.

57 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Work Analog”

  1. If you are doing a task that requires Internet resources (ex: coding, writing a blog post), I’ve found the following productivity hack to work wonders:

    1. In your browser open all of the Internet resources you may need (documentation, code samples, etc.)

    2. Disconnect from the Internet and make it harder to get back on the Net (ex: switch of your WiFi router, hide your LAN cable etc.)

    3. Start working. If you need Internet access to look up a fact, simply put it down on a list which you can reference later. The immediacy of getting facts is overrated and is actually a distraction.

    • I’ve been looking for an “analog” way to practice programming for a long time. It’s just too easy to go down the Stack Overflow-Hacker News- route once you open the browser. I’ll have to give this a try!

      • Read Walter Isaacson’s article about Bill Gates starting Microsoft at Harvard (in the Harvard Alumni Magazine around the time he was promoting Innovators). He quotes Paul Allen remembering how Gates would work through his elegant Altair BASIC routines with felt-tip pens on legal pads.

    • I’m doing something similar to that. For me to be able to stack more tabs into my browser, I pin them so they take less space. Then I work on the manuscript while using these tasks. I personally allow for targeted media distraction for ~5 minutes every working hour.

  2. This reminds me of Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist where he mentions that it is necessary for us to stay away from the screen once in a while and work analog, you know, scribbling on paper instead of typing into the computer. I too find this stimulating and more satisfying.

  3. As a short story writer, I find the best way to do work is to find a quite spot and just scribble on a notebook with a fountain pen. Thanks for the post, Cal.

  4. What a timeless truth!

    There is something ‘right’ about an analog way of working.

    Something pure, something natural about it.

    As much as technology has seamlessly streamlined some ways of doing things, there is a virtue in picking up pen and paper, and ‘sculpting out’ our work.

  5. Totally agree!

    I experienced the same thing. When I come up trying to use electronic agendas or apps to organize my day I used to forget to check them out because I found particularly hard to get familiarized with the habit.

    However, when I went back to analog mechanisms I noted that is so much easier to check my notebook every morning through a quick look and then go into my daily routine. I don’t know why but that’s what happened to me!!!

    Congrats for your work Cal.

  6. “Analog work is underrated. Try it for yourself: you won’t be disappointed.” Indeed. I can’t take notes on an iPad or sketch (I’m a designer) on an iPad. I admire those who create great sketches on it, but I’m not one of those. I need pen, pencil, and good old paper. It’s almost cathartic to me. Love this post. And it’s true. Work on the screen is a rabbit hole. Thank you!

  7. I’ve reached a similar conclusion some time ago. The problem is not so much the *computer* per se, but the *internet*, which today have almost become synonyms (how many times when turning the laptop on, on “non-office” locations, isn’t searching for internet connectivity, as if by instinct, the first thing one does?).

    Just as you try to go “analog” I try to arrange my work so as to maximise the “offline stretchs” — and so far, it has not been disappointing.

  8. Indeed. I almost always do my first drafts on a legal pad — outdoors when weather and cats permit.

    And for brainstorming, I really like a decent sized table and ledger sized (11×17″) paper, several colors of ink and a ruler. Putting bits in boxes on a wide sheet of paper helps me from going linear too early in the process.

  9. Addendum to the previous comment:

    All the above notwithstanding, it is a matter of the most elementary common sense that one should use the best tool for the job at hand. And, despite the all pervading propaganda on how computers are the best tool for *every* (or almost every) possible job, the last years have shown me how that is *not* the case: sometimes pen and paper really are (more than!) enough.

    Polishing manuscripts is, I’d venture, one of those times.

  10. I’ve been experimenting with a similar idea for the last couple of weeks myself. Over the past few years, I have become more and more digitized as I have fallen victim to the falsehood that it would simplify my life and make me more efficient.

    What I’m starting to realize is that there exists a balance between digital and paper, and rather than looking for ways to “go digital” for everything, we need to find the tasks which best lend themselves to being digitized. For me, this has been tasks such as taking notes in lecture (via a tablet) because the digital format both preserves them for the long haul and keeps them extremely organized for future reference.

    Other tasks though, like the so-called deep tasks such as working through a proof, I too have found to be better suited for sitting down with paper, pencil, and my books (and any of the digitized notes that I now print). When doing so, I’ve noticed that besides being detached from a box of distractions like Cal mentioned, the process of physically thumbing through my notes or books adds a dimension to my studying that has just been lacking as of late. Maybe it is the fact that staring blankly into space while trying to think your way through a difficult problem is far more conducive to actually solving the problem than staring at a computer screen.

    In short, it has been a liberating experience, one of which I can see why Cal would take the time to write about. My advice to anyone else looking to take the plunge into disconnecting would be to figure out which tasks you “need” to be digitized and then work from there. Good luck!

  11. I find I’m more prolific and creative when I write out my fiction long-hand. I merely bring a notebook and pen to the library. I let myself wander the stacks and then I sit in an area surrounded by people, which keeps me accountable to working. I’ve also seen some evidence that writing long-hand stimulates our brains and creates a carthatic experience. That’s useful to remember when you’re pissed off and need to vent.

  12. Even without internet checking I can find myself doing a lot of pseudo-work at the computer. Sure it’s on my research project but it’s mostly clerical and also pretty clearly to avoid the discomfort of deep thinking about the thesis, note taking angst, etc. I just reread Kesselman-Turkel’s Research Shortcuts (1982!) and while I’m glad not to have to wrestle with print indexes or “find the library’s typing room”, I am going to prepare the recommended analog work file and follow the related note taking approach (not unlike some Study Hacks ideas). The computer will absolutely save me time at other stages, but dragging yet one more unread article into Mendeley is not facilitating deep thought.

  13. I have found that my typing speed can not keep up with my thinking speed. I write first drafts longhand as fast as I can to keep up with my thoughts. As soon as I am done, I go back and try to decode what I wrote. I generally understand about 95%. I lose the choice word occasionally. Small but unfortunate price to pay for capturing a burst of creativity.

  14. You must get more sleep than I do, since I wake up at 5 AM, if I sit down in that comfy chair and start reading at 10 PM, I wouldn’t make it past the first page 🙂

  15. So true cal. When I study I find that not taking a phone with me helps me concentrate better,I’m free from diatractions ,and there’s no excuse for wasting time.

  16. We need to make spaces and places for deep and focused work, and your picture of the chair is spot on!

    focused and deep work necessitates planning and ensuring the work can happen in the time and space allocated to it.

    I am so guilty of the endless distraction possibilities online.

    xx inky

  17. I miss that way to work from time to time, I avoid to print things for reading in order to avoid waste paper, but when I really need concentrate on something, is more efficient go off-line and seat in comfortable place just with pen and paper.



  18. Excellent and thought-provoking post Cal.

    There are times I prefer using a pencil instead of a pen. It has a different feel. The pen feels dogmatic and final. With the pencil I feel creative and open-minded since it can be erased. The pencil betrays my tension and stress (I break the lead). I also have to sharpen the pencil. This indicates progress and provides timely ergonomic breaks.

  19. I wish you wrote this 6 months ago. It could have saved me so much agony.

    I have just submitted my PhD dissertation after a year of writing. In the beginning, I was more lax and thought I still had time to write. Then, at one of those “creative distraction” moments, I thought to myself “Given my rate of writing, how long will it take me to write, say, 130 pages?” I ventured into shell scripting and “gnuplotting” to plot the increase in pages daily (assuming 250 words/page). I got a nice graph of my progress. A week later, I saw the scary truth; I was slow, very slow. I will miss my deadline for graduation. This was when I panicked. I started pushing myself and set an almost impossible goal of 4 pages per day. This is when I froze. I needed to go faster but I stagnated. I also hated my dissertation by then. I would stare at it for hours with little to add. This is when I went to the university’s writing center and asked for help. In one of the sessions, I mentioned the problem I was having with my writing and the counselor suggested I print my dissertation and edit it with a pencil. It made sense at the time but what I didn’t expect is that my creative (and editorial) juices started flowing that well. I couldn’t stop writing: I wrote on the margins, between the lines, and on external pages. The writer’s block was gone. The progress plot shot up and didn’t stop until I finished.

    Going analog with paper and pencil was the best advice I got.

  20. I really love this blog! Do any of you know if someone else has gathered Cal Newport’s pearls of wisdom for becoming a stand-out graduate student or postdoc for someone interested in academia? (Or if someone else has written something similar to his books for high school and university students?) Thanks!

  21. I am a professional writer and I don’t own a printer. On the rare occasion that I need a printer, I go next door. (I might also add that being almost 70, I am not a digital native.) But your idea that paper can work better because it has no built-in distractions is one that I never thought of before, probably because I have been too distracted. Maybe I should get a printer. And a nice chair– the one in your photo looks so inviting.

  22. I am a huge fan of analog work. I actually write all of my scientific papers/grants on a legal pad with a pen. People make fun of me but it works. It keeps me focused and away from my computer and all of its distractions.

  23. Is there any chance the improvement comes not from working “analog”, but from the change in environment?

    At one point I was taking my laptop to a park (no wifi) for concentrated work sessions and I noticed a benefit from that. I’ve had similar experiences using my laptop on public transportation.

    Both provide a more limited set of distractions, though the bigger win is that I’m in an environment where my mental associations are more focused toward the activity I’m trying to focus on.

    I’ve done so many different activities in my “office” that my mental associations with that space are cluttered by elements unrelated to the task at hand. Going into a different environment that does not have all those unrelated mental associations helps me to focus. In this case, it has nothing to do with “working analog”. Instead it is working with a clear mental slate that made the difference.

  24. This is so true. When do you get the most work done? Usually on a plane with no wifi.

    This is actually a trick I’ve used to immerse myself in a language I’m learning. I purchase billions of TV shows, movies, comics, and literature, then turn off the internet. With nothing to do but entertain yourself on the local net, you’re so much more productive.

  25. Nice article, and the analog idea works in many areas.

    When creating documents or presentations that are important – going to clients or are contracts – I edit on the computer and print. Then go to a corner away from my desk (no distractions) with a pen in hand and read/correct it. I find myself catching errors in print that I don’t see on the screen. I also end up changing the flow of a presentation because I am reading it like a viewer and not seeing it as the author.

  26. When I was in school I always felt I did my best work when all the electronics where turned off. We learned to write using pen and paper and I think going back to that makes us feel more in tune with our creative juices we had when we were kids

  27. What if all of this is in your head? what if internet isn’t killing productivity? what if it’s your inability to control your focus in the face of distraction, Cal?

  28. Almost everything we do and every aspect of our life is affected by modern technology with computers at the top of the list. People obsess over computers and use them in excessively for academic writing, preparing business proposals and presentations. People should try and reduce the overuse of computers because despite them making life easier, they have as many disadvantages as advantages. For writing something really creative, it is important to follow the traditional way of writing with pen and paper and doing hardcore research by reading books or by visiting libraries.


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