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Thinking clearer with pen and paper
single-use system for mindful engagement
You can always recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity. — Richard Feynman
Want to find more deep focus time in your day? Pen and paper.
Want to connect more deeply to what you read? Pen and paper.
Want to take better notes? Pen and paper.
No joke. I’m in love.
A little backstory: I’ve been a digital-first person for a long time. If there is a piece of productivity, task-management, note-taking, or mind-mapping software, I’ve probably tried it. I’ve used and still love lots of digital tools. I like gathering thoughts independently in Obsidian, Coda, or Notion. I like tracking tasks on Apple Reminders and Asana. I enjoy reading ebooks on Kindle, listening to audiobooks on Audible, and sorting out diagramming and wireframing with Keynote, Figma, and LucidChart—so many tools for the many areas of my life.
But recently, my workflow has changed in some important ways. I still use plenty of digital tooling, but increasingly, I start with pen and paper. There are three primary areas in which a pen-and-paper approach has dramatically impacted my life: planning, reading, and note-taking.
A month ago, I started using Cal Newport’s Time Block planning method to make more deliberate choices with how I spend my time during the day (namely, to find more time for deep work). To be honest, I found it odd that a computer science professor made a day planner method that didn’t plug into any software or digital calendar, but now I get it. There is something magical about sitting down with the planner in the morning and sorting out your day with only pen and paper. I was skeptical, but one month in, I’m sold.
Ryan Holiday advocates for reading physical books with a pen in hand. It works. A month ago, I wrote about rereading the Tao Te Ching using this method, and I’m hooked. Currently, I’m reading a physical copy of Existentialism is a Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre. I still use Kindle and Audible. Now, I always have a physical book, digital book, and audiobook in flight.
I started taking physical notes. I didn’t get advice from anyone on this. It just happened. Over the last few months, I’ve taken physical notes and drafted ideas using a graph paper pad and pen. I like graph paper because it’s easy to mix diagrams with notes I’m taking. What I love about this is that at the end of the day and end of the week, I compile my notes, and I might move those to a digital medium, but I might bump this into my Timeblock planner for to-do tasks.
If you haven’t already, I’d recommend trying pen and paper. Writing about their benefits really can’t do it justice. You have to experience it. There is something beautiful about how low-tech pen and paper are. No software updates, no keeping track of chargers, no distractions from alerts and messages. It’s just a single-use system for mindful engagement.
Notable Links this Week
This is an excellent post by a close friend of mine. Patterns like this make refactoring code trivial.
The folks at Morphcat building modern games that run on NES hardware is a love letter to 8-bit gaming. Projects like Triple Jump (Kickstarter link) make me so happy.
I always appreciate the 3Blue1Brown’s framing of counter-intuitive topics. I finally got the sugar-water light experiment.
This is a great podcast interview from Lenny’s Podcast with Bob Moesta. I was first introduced to Bob’s processes when I attended The Switch workshop hosted at 37signals in 2012. That workshop had a significant impact on the way I think about human behavior.