RPS #51 — Paper vs. Digital: The Great Productivity Tool Debate

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These days there are thousands of options when it comes to productivity tools. But one great debate still persists: Which is better, paper or digital productivity tools? I think there’s a place for both.

In this episode, I demonstrate that it’s not a question of either/or, but rather of which/when. And I give some principles for choosing which productivity tasks are better done on paper and which are better done using apps.


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  • 00:00:08 – Welcome to the Redeeming Productivity Show. This is the podcast that helps Christians get more done and get it done like Christians. And I’m your host Reagan Rose.
  • 00:00:22 – Well, thanks for listening in. We’ve got an interesting episode for you today. When we talking about paper versus digital productivity tools and kind of the pros and cons of each and how you can sort of mix and match, uh, some paper planning tools with digital tools and even just kind of some high-level principles to think through what would be best for what types of activities, uh, productivity-wise. Um, but before I jump into that, just want to do the little preamble I always do, which is to say, if you’re listening and you like this, please do subscribe to your favorite podcast thing. So you get notified if the next one, for example, if one doesn’t come out on Monday, like normal and instead comes out way later in the week, like right now, uh, you will just get it in your podcast player. Well, I don’t need to explain podcasts to you.
  • 00:01:16 – You’re listening to one and also a special thank you to the Patreon supporters, guys. Thank you so much for supporting the podcast. Um, it is encouraging to me and helps me pay the bills to keep this going. And if any of you who are listening would like to become a patron supporter, throw a couple of bucks in the hat. Uh, it is patrion.com/redeeming prod. Okay, let’s get into the meat of the episode. Um, so paper versus digital tools. So with productivity, there are, um, many, many tools available to us. Uh, the, you can go as simple as just a hit a, a to-do list or setting goals on a piece of paper, but, uh, so much of productivity is about what tools you use. And especially now in the digital era, there are countless types of tools you can use in the computer, countless apps, countless services, countless automation that you can use to increase your productivity.
  • 00:02:24 – And it can get a little bit overwhelming, to be honest. I’ve mentioned before that when I do as doing college ministry, I think even when I was a college student, I did, this is, I just had a little tiny notebook with a little tiny pen, and I would just write in there some boxes and some little tasks for the day. And I tick off the boxes, uh, to make sure I got everything done. I needed to do that day. And that was a productivity tool. It was small, it was rudimentary, but that was, that was all I did with it. Uh, and then after I read, um, David, Allen’s getting things done, I realized, Oh, I’m basically using his sort of getting things done system, but not as smartly. And so then I was using the paper to record those tasks and, and migrate them to the next day, make sure that, that I had a place to capture everything and process it and, and put it into the right category.
  • 00:03:17 – And I was doing that all paper-wise. Now, though, fast forward to today, I suffer from a condition that doctors call shiny new tools syndrome. And that is, uh, my excuse for that is that I write and do a podcast on productivity. And so I can excuse to myself, my constant flooding from one tool to another, um, you know, each week, it seems like I’m telling you about some new app I’m using or some new tool for productivity. And that’s because I am, I’m switching all the time with different aspects of my productivity. And this is my burden that I bear for you. Dear listener really I’d be highly would be doing this, even if I wasn’t teaching on this and talking about these subjects, because again, it’s, it’s shiny new tool syndrome. A new app comes out and here I am first in line to grab it and try it and disrupt my whole well oiled machine of productivity systems.
  • 00:04:18 – But again, my burden to bear. Uh, but I do think that no matter what you do, there really isn’t one productivity tool to, um, to rule them all. Um, and in the darkness behind them, because there’s just so many different things you do, and there’s different personality types. And I just find that there, there are some things I like to do a certain way, and there’s some things I like to do a different way. And that’s okay. Um, for example, you know, like right now, there are a lot of things that I do digitally, but there’s a lot of things I do on paper. Like I, I still keep a, my, my personal journal, um, on paper. Um, and while I manage my like longterm tasks and things like that in apps each day, I manage the tasks for the day on a piece of paper.
  • 00:05:10 – And there’s just something about putting pen on paper there that I find focusing. And so I just think no matter what, you’re going to use a hybrid of tools and some of those may be paper and some of those may be digital. I don’t think it’s a question of which is better. Should I use a digital productivity system or a paper system? Um, they’re all, there are all in one systems for either one of those, right? I mean, um, the bullet journal is probably the closest thing I can think of that actually. Uh, has you doing everything on paper, like keeping calendars and reminders and events and things like that, all in one spot, along with your tasks? Um, I I’ve done bullet journaling before. I still do some kind of hybrid approach to it, but I really hate the idea of keeping calendars in a paper planner, because what if I don’t have it?
  • 00:06:05 – I mean, it’s a big notebook. I don’t, I’m not going to wear cargo shorts everywhere. I’ll tell you that much right now with a big planner in the, in the pocket. I’m probably not going to wear cargo shorts at all. It’s my wife would leave me. Um, so anyway, my point is really just pros and cons to all those things. And I use a variety of tools right now, and I probably all always will. Um, there’s also, uh, some cool tools that exist right now that have never existed before I’ve mentioned software stuff. I would, did want to tell you about one that I’m about to start using. I just wanted to give kind of a, a plug for, uh, because it’s very cool, a very well designed. Um, and it’s a, it’s a paper planner. So in the past, I’ve used, you may have have ads for these that you’ve seen, but I’ve, I’ve used these all before the self journal, which is a really cool little paper daily planner time blocking thing, the full focus planner, which is something Michael Hyatt came out with.
  • 00:07:04 – I’ve used that before. Um, didn’t love it. Didn’t hate it just wasn’t for me, but now I have an actually holding one right now. Um, the life journal is a very cool, um, like planner journal. It’s a 13-week planner that helps you focus on not just like your tasks and stuff, but, uh, spiritual disciplines. It’s built around goal setting and, and productivity, all that in one. And it’s neat. It’s got like prompts for, um, what you read in the scripture today. Uh, it’s got a spot where you can map out your daily schedule. What are your top three tasks? Um, how are you applying what you read in scripture? Things like that it’s even got a spot, um, for taking notes on sermons and podcast that you’re listening to. Um, it’s just a really cool all in one type journal for a Christian.
  • 00:07:53 – And these are, this is really neat. I’m about to start in this. I’m gonna do 13 weeks with it and try it out. I’ll tell you at the end, um, my impressions on it, but I definitely even from first blush, I recommend it cause there are types of tools in here that I’ve used before and other, uh, paper planners that I’ve loved. Um, but this one’s specifically, you know, kind of faith-based as I recommend that to you. If you go to gospel focused.com, um, you can pick one up there, you can read more about it, um, and, uh, try that out, but, okay. Let’s get philosophical here for a minute. Um, as I’ve used different tools over the years here is kind of the key distinction that is emerged in my mind between digital and paper productivity tools. And then I’ll kind of flesh it out a little bit.
  • 00:08:46 – So the key distinction is that digital is for storing paper is for processing. So I’m going to, I’m going to build on that a little bit, but this is, this is kind of like I could, you know, distill it, reduce it down to it’s a key difference. Digital is for storing papers for processing. Okay. So let’s, uh, let’s look at the digital side of that real quick. So I say that the, the pro that digital brings to the table, the thing that it’s best at that it is better than paper at is storing. Um, and what I mean by that is three things, persistent storage, easily accessible storage. And even as it comes to reminders, the reliability of the things you read that you store in there that they’ll come back to you, of course, if I took a hand written note, it is technically, you know, stored it’s in a notebook somewhere, but, uh, it’s not the best way to store information.
  • 00:09:50 – I think computers are better at this because I can use a find function or I can, uh, have automated ways for the, for the software to re present to me information from the past. Uh, in fact, there’s a great app I’m using right now, it’s called read wise. And if you take highlights in Kindle or like on Instapaper or pocket or something like that, you can hook it up to read wise, realize we’ll take all of those highlights. And then each day it sends you like a daily digest of old highlights. And so I think I have mine set up, it sends me five a day and every morning, and that’s kind of been part of my morning routine. I get this little email and it has five highlights from old books that I’ve read or old articles and things that I thought interesting. And a lot of it’s from years and years ago, because I’ve been reading Kindle books for years.
  • 00:10:38 – And I just love that. It’s such a cool little way to remind it of old insights. I might jump into the book and read the context and be like, Oh yeah, that was, that was fascinating. Um, but that I think is a good example of digital storage. Uh, being able to remind you of something resurfacing things, uh, from the past in an automatic way, which I would not have found. I mean, some of those books, I don’t even remember reading. Um, so that, that thing is a good, good example there read wise is the name of that app. Do you wanna check it out? Um, but the main thing with digital storage is that is persistent. Um, it is always there. You’re not, it’s not going to go away. Um, as long as you know, all the servers don’t die, your computer doesn’t explode and the EMP doesn’t blow up.
  • 00:11:29 – Um, but that’s kind of was one of the issues when I was doing bullet journaling, was that even though I was, you know, staying on top of a logging, everything each day, managing like longterm tasks, really gummed everything up. I I’d be transferring things from log to log from day to day. And if I, if I wasn’t good about like reviewing my planner every week and every day, things would get forgotten. Sometimes they get left behind or sometimes they’d just be following me around for weeks and I’d have to hand copy them. Um, and also I kept finding that the more things I put in the planner, the more I lost, uh, if I, if I didn’t keep it simple, uh, the complexity would, would go out to control much faster than if I use digital tools. Um, but I kept a good index, but even then I found myself missing that ability.
  • 00:12:18 – I haven’t a computer to do like a command F on my Mac and find a specific note or find a keyword that I remember about something. So there’s that speed. That was, that was lost. Um, so that’s, what’s cool about digital everything’s index. Everything’s searchable. I can organize, I can reorganize to my heart’s content. And I have confidence that if I put something in my digital storage tools, uh, and everything being equal, I’ll be able to find it again. And so, so another part of that is so it’s persistent, but digital storage is also easily accessible. I just mentioned the command F thing that you can find things within there. Um, make sure you don’t lose, um, the things that you’ve stored, but it’s also easily accessible in the sense that, like I mentioned before, you don’t have to carry around a giant notebook with you, um, or hundreds of giant notebooks.
  • 00:13:10 – If you have years of information that you’ve been storing, uh, your phone, your, a little smartphone has everything from your Evernote or your notion, or even your file system like on Dropbox or, or, or, um, or iCloud right at your fingertips. And that’s, I think is a huge advantage of digital, you know, we might criticize it that it’s distracting having these phones and, and it’s tough to have all the world’s information at your fingertips, but man, it is pretty nice to know that you can get at stuff you’ve put in your digital systems anywhere, anytime you need to. Um, so that’s what I like. And I, I look for that in productivity apps, something that syncs across all my devices, um, cause I don’t always have my computer with me. And then finally, just on the subject of digital for storing, there’s just, uh, what I would call reliable reminders.
  • 00:14:03 – Um, you can you, even, if you keep a calendar on a digital tool, the fact is there are no notifications built into your notebook. Even the coolest, even FranklinCovey planners don’t have notifications built into their paper planner calendars. Why? Well, because that’s just the way the world works. It’s not possible, but digital tools can remind me 15 minutes before a meeting that I need to, you know, get up and go. Um, they, they can remind me with, with tasks that, Hey, you said that you were going to mow the lawn this weekend and I don’t have to think about it, but it just pops up on, on Saturday morning. I’m like, okay, that’s, that’s the task for the day. You know what I mean? Like all of that automation type stuff that’s available with digital tools not available on paper. And so I think that that’s definitely, um, a digital has the edge on paper in that regard.
  • 00:14:59 – Um, but, and this is what I want to stress is that doesn’t mean that paper is good for nothing. I, like I mentioned the beginning, I still use a physical paper notebook, uh, in my productivity arsenal. I still use it to take notes. I still use it to plan my, my individual days. And I’m about to use it for a bunch of stuff. When I jump into this life journal that I have here. Um, and that’s because paper has a benefits that digital does not. Um, and let me, let me pause to make it even broader point just about life, the universe and everything there is, I think in modern thought this, this feeling that as we make, quote, unquote, progress, that it is always better. Um, and I think I can have this attitude sometimes that digital is always better than something that is, um, not digital and that progress always means improvement.
  • 00:15:51 – It doesn’t technology does not always make things better. Sometimes for example, it is better that you go slower with something and you say, well, there’s digital thing. Maybe it makes it so much easier, so much faster to do and do X, Y, or Z. Um, and so therefore it’s better. Maybe there’s a reason that it’s slower. Uh, maybe there’s a reason that, um, it takes a long time to dig a fence post hole and you don’t necessarily need a giant machine to do it. Um, that was a metaphor. So papers for processing. This is my, my, uh, my, my key principle on the other side of it is data digitals for storage papers for processing. Okay. It can do things that digital can’t do. Um, I think that this is, I have found no way around this with digital tools, but there is something about when I use a nice pen and a piece of paper that just makes the creative juices flow.
  • 00:16:56 – Um, and here’s kind of some of the reasons I think that this is better. I think that paper is better for processing ideas. Uh, one is because paper’s disposable. Um, now that goes against kind of what I’d said before about digital being better because for storage, but when it comes to processing information or thinking, I should say, um, the fact that paper is transient by nature, uh, helps me, at least with my paralysis of analysis, I have, uh, a tendency towards perfectionism. And I feel like if I’m doing it on a computer, I don’t know why, but I have to get it exactly right. But doing, working out some thoughts on a piece of paper first that I, that I know I’m going to throw away kinda helps me with that because I’m like, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I’m just going to throw this in the waste bin, the waste bin, I’m an American I’m going to throw in the trash can waistband.
  • 00:17:50 – Um, so knowing that whatever I jot down is not being committed to some eternal digital archive that gives me the freedom to think with fewer boundaries. Um, and I even enjoy it. I love like, you know, the classic trope of, uh, of the writer crinkling up the piece of paper and throwing it in the, in the garbage I like that because it’s like, it’s gone now paper because paper’s disposable. It just makes it a better tool for processing thoughts. Um, second with that is paper’s good for processing because paper slows you down. I’m thinking a, something that can’t be rushed. Uh, the power of, of, of paper is that when you have to write it out by hand, it takes longer. And I’ve, I’ve heard this. Um, my pastor, John MacArthur has said this, and I’ve probably mentioned it here on this podcast before, but he says that, well, I’ll say that he repeat prepares his sermons.
  • 00:18:52 – They’re hour-long sermons. He prepares them with a fountain pen and a piece of paper. And he’s been doing that his whole life, which is nuts. He doesn’t type it out on a computer or anything. It’s just handwritten things and it is slower. And he said that it’s slower, um, than if he would, would use a computer. But he says, it’s a good thing because it slows them down. That’s why he uses a fountain pen is he has to stop and refill it. And, and there’s this, um, slowing down that helps with thinking to aid that process. And I have experienced this too, like as a writer, um, you kind of think, well, writing is getting as many words as possible onto the page each day. So you can like keep writing the most right writing is writing. But writing is really just thinking in the same way with, with sermon preparation, sermon preparation.
  • 00:19:46 – Isn’t just about getting the words on the paper. It’s about getting the right words on the paper. It’s about thinking and processing and then getting that out there in a crystallized form. And so speed of getting information onto a document is not necessarily the end all be all. It’s not necessarily progress that you were able to type. I don’t know, a thousand words a minute. That’s probably is a lot. I don’t know, actually, what is a lot of words per minute, but it’s not, it’s not necessarily progress that you were able to put the most words onto the computer because your fingers went a mile a minute. It’s more important that you put the right words. And so paper, I do, I think it has a leg up on, um, digital tools because it makes you go slower and think so. Yeah. Clacking on the keyboard enables me to write faster.
  • 00:20:37 – That’s a fact, but it does not necessarily mean that I’m writing more thoughtfully. So paper can help you with that, not to get out of yourself. And then finally with paper, um, in this under the sub heading of papers for processing, is that right? Paper is better for processing than digital because it just stroll. I use distractions, absolutely obliterates them. Um, when I opened up my computer, that is the last thing I do every morning. Um, because that is just inviting problems. If you’re, if you’re, um, if your phone or your computer or your iPad or whatever it is you’re using, that has wifi, it has email, it has social media. It has all these distractions. Even if you turn all those things off, you kind of know they’re there. And that too is distracting. Um, uh, actually researchers have found this, that people are distracted even by the, whether or not their phone is notifying them.
  • 00:21:36 – The fact that their phone could notify them is distracting to them. If that makes sense. And the great thing about paper that I think is a really great feature of paper, is that it doesn’t have wifi. It doesn’t have a Bluetooth antenna, it doesn’t have notifications. And so like with those, uh, features or lack of features, I think there’s a massive advantage. And so I, if I really want to focus, I want to do some, some thinking. I want to do that on paper because I don’t want to be interrupted. Um, and like I said, that’s in, in the morning, the last thing I do is open my computer. I leave my phone on the little charger next to my bedside. When I leave, uh, to get up in the morning, I don’t look at my phone at all, if I’m being good and I come out to the kitchen, I open up my journal.
  • 00:22:21 – I write in my journal, I read my Bible. I pray, I do all that stuff. And it only, at the end of that, do I open up my computer? Because oftentimes when I opened that computer, I ended up going down the rabbit hole. I’m not as productive as I want to be. And, um, sometimes you’re gonna end up throwing my whole day into disarray because some email will come through that I have to deal with them. And so that’s why I delay it. And that’s why stick to paper stuff initially, so that I don’t lose that time of focus, that time of thinking that time of really being focused and, uh, being with the Lord as I, as I studied his word. And I, um, and I pray, so paper is awesome because I used to lie to you from those distractions. And thus helps you to process your thoughts better than you can with digital tools, that invite distraction.
  • 00:23:12 – So that is it. I hope that’s somewhat helpful for you. Those are kind of the, the big thing. That’s all I wanted to share with you today is that, Hey, there is a place for paper tools. There’s a place for digital tools. You don’t have to do everything with one productivity tool. Um, and big picture. My conclusion is that the great distinction between these two is that digital is really good at storing paper is really good for processing. If you think about those, them in those terms, that might help you to build out your own productivity arsenal. Um, and that is something that’s going to look different from everybody. I think it’s a personal thing, what apps you like, uh, and what tools you use and whether you’re more paper geared or digital geared, but feel free to mix and match. And, um, maybe some of those principles will help you as you think through it. Well, that’s all I have for you today. Thanks so much for listening. I’m sorry. Again, this is coming out so late in the week, it has been a crazy couple of weeks. Um, but, uh, it’s all good and glad to be back with you. And, um, I will see you again here next week, but until I do remember this in whatever you do, do it well and do it all to the glory of God.
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