Analog: What would it take?

Analog systems. It seems I keep running into more and more of them lately. And a number of you have shared your own with me, which is awesome! 👏

I’ve been collecting notes and thoughts on my own system as I want to put together a series of articles (or one epic article) with video that shows what I’m doing. Drew and I have been talking about pen and paper quite a bit over on Whims That Work but I know that not everyone has time to listen to podcasts.

But as I plan this article/video, I’m curious about a single question: What would drive you to use paper?

I’m seeing a lot of science behind the use of pen and paper for these sorts of things, but that is sometimes difficult to translate into the real world.

And if you’re already on an analog system: What does your system look like?

Basically, I’m curious.

What I’m reading

Stoner by John Williams

This is a book that was recommended to me by Drew. It’s not my normal style but I do like to take breaks from the nonfiction constant once in a while.

Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters by Meg Meeker

I’ve read this one twice in the past. And given that I have three little girls, I know I can always give it another go. So when I saw that a friend of mine was putting together a group of guys to read it together, I immediately signed up.


WTW - 19: For the Sake of Mental Freedom

Drew gets an office that’s juuuust close enough to the street for a passing ambulance to be featured as this week’s special guest. Joe and Drew share their new time banks, talk time-tracking, and distraction.

Books added to the list

12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson

I posted a picture of my latest books on Instagram and a friend recommended this one as a follow-up to reading Flow.

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

Interesting Productivity Guild topics

My Bullet Journal Derivative

Simon gave us an interesting look into his analog system. I love these things so, of course, I have to share it.

Words That Challenge

I spent some time this week cleaning up the feeds and sources that I’m reading. But that meant I spent absolutely zero time actually reading interesting articles. Sooo… nothing new here.



I’m approaching a 30-day streak on this one. I think I may get to a point in the near future where I drop this as an experiment and admit to keeping it on full-time. My rationale is that the process of focusing on a single topic in my thoughts for the 10 minutes (not an easy task) has been an eye-opening process. I liken it to the clarity I get when I do Morning Pages. Which brings me to…

Morning Pages

Although I didn’t do these as much as I would have liked, I did get to them a couple times. Now to improve on that this upcoming week.

If you'd like these in your email, you can either subscribe here on the Guild or via my website.

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In order for me to return to an analog system, it would have to be able to provide the features (or functional replacements) that I depend on from my digital system.

1.) Ubiquitous Device - I always have my phone with me. If I’m going to carry it around with me everywhere anyway, why not make it the means by which I access my system when I’m out and about. I suppose I could get used to carrying around an analog device too, but why? Why carry around an extra item to access my system when I can access it via a device I’m going to be carrying around anyway? If you can show me a paper based tool that also allows me to make phone calls, text, access the internet, manage reservations, provides weather information, and provides GPS driving directions I may consider it.

2.) Volume Of Information - Between projects, tasks, and all of the reference material and history that I keep in my system, a paper-based platform is simply unreasonable. Projects and tasks in OmniFocus liked to reference material in Evernote keeps everything connected and accessible regardless of the amount. Visualizing the size and number of binders I would have to have to keep up with everything is both scary and comical.

3.) Ongoing Managment And Maintenance - If I have a list of tasks in an analog system and I complete several of them, do I recopy the remaining items on another page? No thanks. Would I do this every day? Double no thanks. Do I have to hunt backward through the notebook to see what I’ve accomplished and what is still remaining? Not interested. What if I come up with something that, for whatever reason, needs to be between two items already written in a list?

4.) GTD Principle - The idea of only seeing what I need to see when I need to see it, is a big deal for me. If I’m working on product development for the state of Georgia, I don’t need to see my grocery list or the stuff related to getting my car fixed. If I operate with the idea of contexts, I don’t need to see my @home stuff when I’m at the office. How would I do this with paper? Set up different sections of a notebook dedicated to different projects and contexts ahead of time? What happens when one section is full, but the others aren’t? What do I do with my notebook at that point?

I work in the field of education and am familiar with the research on the value of paper when it comes to learning and creativity. I am convinced that writing by hand has benefits, which is why its paper and pen for me when taking notes in a meeting, a presentation, or when reading a book. Maybe this is a definition thing, but my “system” is about managing the “stuff” I’ve got to manage. Learning and creative activities call for analog, but once that portion is done and it has become part of a larger project that is trying to be accomplished, it goes into my digital system for all of the reasons above. Find me an analog system that can do those things and avoid those problems and I’m interested.


That’s why I need a digital system. I need those notifications to remind me about something or another thing.

My handwriting is atrocious and I would never be able to have neat notebooks. My notebooks look like chicken scratches and a 4 year old child’s attempting at drawing Mickey Mouse stick figures.

But I do like the idea of having a binder specifically for projects. Then when i want to work on a particular project, I’ll take that sheet out of the binder and work on it for as long as needed. Then file it back into the binder when I’m finished or when I put it on the back burner. Then I have daily pages with single one-off tasks that need to be worked on.

I can’t necessarily go all analog or all digital. I’ve enjoyed using a mixture of both. I like working in both depending on the situation. My digital system is the warehouse that stores all of my projects and tasks. When I really want to focus on Today, I’ll write those 3-5 tasks to focus on today and print out the project sheet and work from there. Digital is powerful but it can be distracting. Analog’s limitations gives me focus to work on Today. Otherwise, I’d spend all day noodling around in OmniFocus (or whatever task app).

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It is interesting how people view reminders. I find those to be incredibly stressful, in a weird subtle way. To me, when I rely on reminders I’m not managing things well. When I am, I don’t need reminders. Whereas others are stressed / concerned without them.

The “best” pure digital system I ran was all built in Workflowy, no reminders there either.

On the benefits of writing by hand: are there any comparison studies that look at digital natives vs. us old farts that wrote by hand into adulthood? I always wonder if the benefits are simply baked in during your formative years vs. anything specific. Case in point, I generally think through topics better on paper as it is free from. However, when I do a deep dive into a topic I like to use freewriting as described by Mark Levy in Accidental Genius. This is best accomplished via typing as it is a speed of thought exercise.

What would drive you to use paper?
I am generally so sick of looking at screens that I become agitated over the course of the day. Anything I can carve out that allows me to step away is helpful.

I’ve found that searching for tasks is not really something I need to do. Searching for notes and reference material on the other hand, is necessary. An analog system can function for me, as long as notes get stored digitally.

Another one of my issues, that lends itself to paper, is that I take on way more that I should. Stupidly more. With a digital system, it is very easy to hide, filter, defer. With the analog method I’m using, I have to face the reality of what I’ve committed too.

What does your system look like?

Analog vs. Digital Vs. Hybrid: People are a bit loose on when they call something a hybrid system. I would imagine most folks in 2018 who are analog, are actually hybrid. Do you use email or a phone? Or postcards and carrier pigeons? I think you could sell that service in certain cities, a company that receives your email, prints it, and sends a carrier pigeon to your home. Then reverses the process for your replies. Digital calendars are required in a corporate space. They just are.

Digital components:

Projects / Input: I work on several projects with multiple organizations that do not share collaboration tools, so I’m Asana, Smartsheet, basecamp, etc. as a normal course of my work. I believe this fracturing is a key factor in my recent attempts of leveraging analog systems. In my last role, there weren’t multiple systems so I set my own up in workflowy and was perfectly happy for 4 years. The job change and input source explosion broke that for some reason.

I use a notebook to funnel that all into a single workstream, or at least the active / in scope items to focus on . I build delivery plans that need to be shared or collaborated within Smartsheet. Email, chat services, and a digital calendar are used.

Capture: Items get dropped into the relevant systems - i.e. Asana project items get pushed back into those tools. I keep project notes digitally so they are searchable. If I’m putting something in one of the many systems, I copy it into my notes as well. Or generally, the reverse is occurring. When I’m driving, I’ll dictate into Drafts, then push it (digital or analog) to the appropriate place the next time I do an email check. i also carry around a small digital recorder. When I go for a walk, I don’t like taking my phone but like to capture ideas that pop up. Quick recording that I process later. I also will carry around a small rite-in-the-rain notebook to write things down. Just depends how accessible my hands are at the time. Again, when I do a scheduled email check I’ll process the other inboxes.

Reminders: Outside of actual timed events, I really don’t use any sort of digital reminders, for reasons outlined above. I limit notifications on services as much as possible.

Storage: Long term thinking, future ideas, out of scope projects, notes on family items, key information, etc. - essentially anything that may need to be referenced outside the lifespan of a single notebook gets typed / scanned and stored digitally.


I use a variant of Mark Forster’s autofocus system(s). Summary of how that part of it works:

  • Maintain a master running list of ideas that come up, tasks to complete, etc. I capture anything here but I only keep in scope items here. In Scope vs. Out of scope below.

  • Due dates or similar information is at the left hand side of the line, so it is easily visible when scanning

  • At the start of the day, look through the entire list once. No actions or decisions are made during this period.

  • Go back to the start of the list and put a dot next to important, urgent, or tasks that jump out to be worked on. There are many suggested ways on Mark’s site on how to determine where to focus. His idea is to blend your rational mind and your intuition. I generally get a gut feeling on what is important. Kind of weird.

  • I’ll generally copy those marked items down to a note card and dig in.

  • I’ll cycle around the note card items until they are done or they don’t seem relevant. I’ll generally go back to the whole list and repeat the pull 2-4 times per day.

  • New urgent items get added to the notecard and the end of the list.

  • If you complete a task, you cross it out. If you work on a task, but don’t complete it, you cross it out and add it back to the end of the list. This bit has been surprisingly helpful at removing resistance. I don’t have to complete something to get the dopamine hit of crossing it out, just take some action.

  • when you get orphaned items on pages - decide whether they aren’t relevant any more of if they are out of scope. Process them accordingly, or just cross them out and add them to the end of the list.

  • When there isn’t anything urgent or pressing, I skip the dotting / note card focus bit and go pure autofocus. Scan down the list until I’m drawn to work on something and then work on it. Nice way to kill through a bunch of old stuff.

That is the engine behind the whole process. Now, I have separate pages (collections) for project or ideas that I’m building out. I may move their tasks over to the master list or I may add “work on the next item in project x” to the list. I add “review out of scope project y” and similar items to the list.

I tend to do a last run through at the end of the day and select items for the next morning vs. start the day with the scanning. When I need to, I’ll setup time blocks with the relevant items. When I don’t, I don’t.

I’ve been working in 6 week blocks with some week by week planning. Those are written out in the notebook and are referenced during the week to make sure we are on track.

I add everything to the list as it comes up. If I determine that something is out of scope currently, I’ll cross it out and add it to the project storage. For example, in the middle of the day I have a random idea to research something for a book I’d like to write. I’ll jot it down in the master list and when I come back to it, I’ll decide it is out of scope and remove it to the relevant location I’m capturing ideas for that project. Generally a sheet in Ulysses. That out of scope project will have a reminder or a tickler task in the master list.

I clean the list up and rewrite it as necessary. I’m not particularly precious about it. I like the flexibility of paper in this regard: I added a “task” that was a quick sketch of a process flow that popped in my head for a project I was working on. I was on a call, and didn’t want to lose it. Now I have a task that is a drawing. Kind of neat. I tend to just migrate orphaned tasks to the end of the list vs. start the list from scratch, however I’m leaning towards a fresh rewrite every 4-6 weeks to force a weeding of the list.

I generally take notes by hand, either in my notebook or on an ipad. These are then type / converted to text and stored in appropriate locations.

Work vs. Personal: Currently, I keep a master list of both and a sublist of just personal. I have a small rite-in-the-rain notebook that I carry everywhere, and that is where I’ll jot the personal items into or copy from the master list in the primary notebook. The dual entry doesn’t bother me so far, however I could see it being an issue for some. I just sync them up at the end of the day. I keep the separate list so I don’t have to look at work items when I’m off, however I do like to be able to see both in context.

The next time I refresh my list, I may use what Mark Forster calls the “stalactite / stalagmite” method. When you’re adding items to a new list page, work items are added from the top down and personal items are added from the bottom up. When they meet, you draw a line. Then you can cover one or the other up and see just the relevant context.


I am largely digital but for the last few years I’ve been slowly becoming more hybrid. I bought the big Barron Fig for a New Year’s present and now I’m doing a daily plan and key task listing in there. I keep it open during the day and do a little diary, notes, and sketches. This is in addition to digitally capturing things. I still use Day One. I still USE THE HELL out of OmniFocus. The Fig gives me a place to focus the day, set some expectation, and it feels kind of good … despite dreadful handwriting.


I consider my poor handwriting a fairly effective form of encryption. Even from myself. I occassionally need to have my wife decipher what I wrote, and she says years of working with small children makes it possible. Burn.


Yeah … you really need to kind of just “get over” your handwriting if you go down that road.

I’m just about to start publishing a long set of posts (35k words) on my analogue system. The big draw is that using a Journal means I can’t really make committments for “future Curtis”. You can easily do this by moving a due date forward to when you’ll “have time” but you never do.

I’ve found paper is great for perspective and reflection, and digital tools are great for speed. I, for one, work as a manager in a customer service organization, so speed is necessary for me. Handwriting every task is extremely inefficient. However, to give me a sense of direction and focus for the day, sometimes I’ll write my priorities down on paper (though, honestly, it’s been to a lesser extent lately).

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I find reminders useful for me. It eases the burden of needing to watch the clock to make sure I need to be somewhere at the right time. I don’t like badges on my app icon and have disabled them. The tasks that have due dates will have an alarm associated with them.

To make reminders less stressful, I include a buffer time and it will ding at me at a comfortable time. Otherwise I am in a hurry and stressed out from rushing quickly from appointment to appointment or meeting last minute deadlines.

I try to set my due dates 1-3 days ahead of time. If something is due Friday, I will set my personal due date to Wednesday or Thursday. I can get my task done early and not worry about having another distraction taking my focus away. Stay ahead of the roaring bear and I’ll be ok.

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This is easily one of the strongest arguments against paper. I completely understand it, too. It’s the one thing that continues to pull at me.

This is a tough one as well, but I think it’s solved in the design of the system you use. But that can’t be forced on anyone as it has to be specific to how you work. For me, I have a method that only requires rewriting once every four months or so. To me, that’s a small price.

There’s a great question. I feel like I’ve read a lot of studies about analog vs. digital, but I can’t place one where they pinned digital natives on digital against gray-hairs on paper.

This is the exact reason I originally experimented with it. There’s some real benefit here, in my opinion and experience.

Very fair point. In my case, I’m technically hybrid despite me saying I’m analog. I have a digital calendar and handle cold-storage ideas/projects in Bear.

:joy: I think I’ve been blessed with decent handwriting. So the idea of reading my own writing has never been a deterrent.

Q: When is it digital and when is it analogue?

“Ah, that’s easy, you might say, analogue is paper and writing.”

Towards the end of 2017 I moved from 10 years of iPhone to a Galaxy Note 8. This single device has completely messed up my clear distinctives between digital and analogue. As much as I miss the simplicity of iOS over Android the Galaxy Note 8 s-pen is the killer feature for me.

I can now literally bullet journal on my device. I can write using the pen and it’s my handwriting. The device is always with me. The search even finds text in my handwriting.

Is this digital or analogue? Granted it’s a digital device, but the writing is like pen to paper.

Bullet journals have a contents page to reference your pages/notes. With the Samsung notes I add notes to collections, I can also send a note to reminders or share it.

For the first time I’m looking hard at my paper notebook and thinking what advantage it gives me. The free flow of handwriting is in Samsung notes, I can use colour, draw shapes, insert text, mark up the text, add a photo and so forth. Plus the phone is easily mobile, more so than my notebook.

I’m even finding that I’m hand writing my emails and text messages and they are all converted to text, so much faster than any mobile keyboard.

For me personally, it has made me realise that the element creating most friction in using digital devices has always been the unwieldy keyboard.

The pen plus the digital device, is that the coming together of digital and analogue?

This is intriguing to me as well. I’ve been long considering an iPad Pro 12” with a “pencil”. I have various reasons but a big one is handwriting conversion.

I’ve envisioned a large digital dot grid sheet. But the. I think, do I miss all the good parts of analog?

:: shrug ::

The other reason I want it is for wire framing, and other technical illustrations.

I use a 12" iPad Pro as a primary device.

Many of the writing apps have the ability to load whatever backgrounds you’d like, so you could setup a dot grid.

The pencil doesn’t quite scratch the itch for me as I need the time away from screens, however I generally use it daily as part of work.

Sketching diagrams, marking up pdfs (leaning back in a chair and holding the ipad like a notepad to edit a document is a fantastic experience), work notes that I know will need to be captured, etc. Very common to take a picture of an analog sheet and then use that as something I mark up or embed.

If I didn’t have the desire to get away from screens I would use the ipad for everything.

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I think this is where I like the Note8. I don’t tend to carry my iPad everywhere due to its size. My Note8 goes everywhere and being able to make quick notes without having to unlock the screen or at night. I can capture a note in 5 seconds. You can also have a grid that is displayed when writing, but disappears when the note is saved.

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