Need To Get Focused? First Go Analog

Have the feeling that you do your best thinking with a pen in your hand? There’s a reason for that. And a way to get that feeling from a keyboard, too.

Need To Get Focused? First Go Analog

If you take the Wall Street Journal‘s word for it, handwriting trains your brain.


How? Writer Patrick Rhone lists longhand’s positives:

“We learn more and retain more. Creative pathways are opened up as we engage more of our senses. Forming letters by strokes, as opposed to selecting each by keys, opens regions of the brain involving thinking, language, and memory that are not opened through typing. Writing, real writing, makes you smarter.”

Handwriting has had its defenders even before Facebook was making us lonely: Martin Heidegger, the uncheerful philosopher, thought that the typewriter was a homewrecker, inserting itself between the hand and the word. Pages were no longer being written, he scowled, they were merely typed. And he never even saw the new R2D2 Mac Pro.

But what is really going on here–what do you get from turning off the screens and scrawling your thoughts across a page?

As slow as it is thoughtful

Harry Marks, who blogs at Curious Rat, wrote the final 40,000 words of his second novel solely using pen and paper. This is what he learned.

1. My brain does one round of self-editing as I carefully choose my words while physically writing them down.
2. Those same words go through another filter while my brain processes what I’ve already written as I type them into the computer.

That method resulted in a more thoughtful and better-written book, he says. He’s not alone: Neil Gaiman, he of awesome commencement speeches and awesomer books, does his first drafts in longhand. Not only does it slow him down a little, Gaiman says, but it keeps him going–he won’t spend half the day dawdling with a sentence if he’s writing with a pen.

But what if that’s too slow?


The Hybrid Method

Marks, the Curious Rat from above, has adopted a mixed method: he scrawls his first first draft in a gigantic Moleskine notebook, using the cheap and classy Pilot Hi-Tec C Pen. Then comes the hybridization: he uses Scanner Pro, an app from Readdle, that turns your iPhone into a scanner, to back up his notebook. Then the handwritten prose gets transcribed into a word processor.

Why the time-instinsive process? “I’ve learned the only things worse than procrastination are distractions,” he writes, “and if I’m going to overcome them, I need to cut them out of my life as much as possible.”

Which brings us to the center of the matter: writing your ideas out in a notebook or on a whiteboard gets you away from the beeps and bells of the screened-in world. Unplugging helps you focus and do slower, more thoughtful work, which is a good fit if the task at hand emphasizes quality more than speed.

But can you have the unplug without the unplug?

Kittysneezes scribe Richard J. Anderson has a workaround for getting the unpluggedness of the analog workflow without actually unplugging: enter the iPad, keyboard, and Drafts combo.

I’m typing this up in my neighborhood coffee shop, on a lovely, warm Saturday afternoon. Here, I’m able to go into a different mental state, free from the distractions of home. My mind goes entirely into my writing the text on the screen in front of me.

It’s like unplugging without actually unplugging: rather than being driven to distraction by your gadgets, you drive them into productivity. Like Thoreau quipped, don’t become a tool of your tool.



[Image: Flickr user Lali Masriera]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.