Digital Divide Issue No. 4: What Digital Does Better
As avowed an analog junkie as I am, I'm also a gadget-nerd at heart. I keep my iPhones up to date, I do most of my writing on an iPad Pro, and I wear an Apple Watch most of the time. I do, however, try to keep the various parts of my life compartmentalized into analog and digital spheres, because I think certain tasks are better suited for one than the other. For example, most of my "capture" (writing down ideas, thoughts, research notes, etc.) takes place strictly on paper. It's just easier for me to open up a notebook and jot down my thoughts, ideas, and preliminary outlines than to try to "think" on a screen. It's always been that way for me. As I mentioned in this earlier blog post, I moved some of my note taking for work over to my iPad Pro using the Apple Pencil, but that's mainly for "disposable" work notes and scratchpad-type stuff that I don't intend to keep long term. Most everything else goes into my paper notebooks.
But what does "digital" do better? What do I rely on my digital devices to handle in managing my day-to-day life and workflow?
Calendaring. I used to keep paper calendars religiously, and used a Filofax (yes, here in the United States!) throughout high-school and college. The inherent weakness of a paper calendaring system, however, is the inability to set recurring appointments on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis. The ability to "set it and forget it", rather than having to sit down every week, month, etc. and re-enter recurring events on a paper calendar, not to mention constantly wondering whether or not you've forgotten to write down a current appointment, is a key advantage of digital calendaring. In all fairness, you can forget to enter something into your phone as well, but at least at my day job there is a dedicated person responsible for entering deadlines, hearing dates, etc. into our outlook calendars. Also, apps such as Fantastical for the iPhone and iPad make quick entry remarkably easy.
Reminders and To-Do's. Calendaring leads me into the next aspect of digital time management that I find so helpful: setting reminders and managing task lists. Planners and notebooks can do many things, but they can't buzz and let you know that you're about to miss that important meeting, or that you forgot to do that "one thing" you promised your significant other you would take care of before you got home. Again, I still make plenty of lists in my pocket notebooks and on random pieces of scratch paper, but they're more in the way of a "brain dump."
Some reminder and "to do" apps go beyond simple alerts and task lists. My task manager of choice is Omnifocus. I have so many different things going on in so many different areas of my life that I rely heavily on Omnifocus's ability to create different "contexts" and "projects", which I use to subdivide my life and attention into the various things that I'm working on at any given time. This software is not cheap, and it's certainly not for everybody, but I've used it fairly religiously for about a year now and it's calmed me down a lot because I don't feel as out of control. Provided I stick to my weekly reviews of all my outstanding tasks and update them accordingly, at a glance I can check the status of any given project at any time.
Archiving. Even those of us who remain ardent analogue note-takers can recognize the advantages of digital indexes and archives. Searchability and portability are the two primary digital advantages that come to mind: Scanning your handwritten notes or summarizing the most important information into a digital file format allows you to take your research and information with you on a portable drive or upload it "to the cloud" for access from anywhere, and digital files are easily searchable--even with large volumes of data. The thought of digging back through my piles and piles of filled-up notebooks and journals to find something I wrote down years ago makes me cringe. (To mitigate this problem, I've recently started to implement both an analog and digital indexing system for my notes and writing, but that's a subject for another time.)
It's not that I throw anything away. I'm a packrat--not quite a hoarder--and I like having a paper backup of all my notes and drafts. As others have observed much more eloquently than I, digital is easily accessible but impermanent. In this article, Patrick Rhone also makes a great point that if you are going to store information electronically, where possible do so in .txt files, rather than in proprietary formats that lock you into a specific software program that in all likelihood the publisher will stop supporting at some point.
If you're a heavy pocket notebook user, I'd also point you in the direction of my friend Dave Rhea's website Indxd, which is a free online database tool that allows you to create an easily searchable index of your pocket notebooks.
So what's the big conclusion here? There's really not one, in the sense that I don't feel comfortable "recommending" how people should divide their lives between digital and analog. Everyone's needs are different, and what works for me may not--and indeed, probably won't--work for you. I have a deadline-heavy job, so reliable calendaring and reminders are a key consideration for me. If I was in a different line of work, it's entirely possible I'd move back to a paper planner or calendar for the sheer joy of it.
- Getting Things Done, by David Allen. I'm linking to this because the Omnifocus "system" is heavily influenced by David Allen's GTD methodology. Very helpful for me, but again, not for everyone.
- Pencil for Long-Term Writing, Pencil Revolution
- Some Indexing Methods for Notebooks, The Cramped.
- Proven, Patrick Rhone (benefits of .txt files)
- An Index of Ideas, Shawn Blanc