Analog January Challeng

I love the idea of replacing digital habits, particularly ones you use a phone for, with analog habits. It can seem quaint, or old fashioned, or even hipster-ish, but I’m always delighted at the great experiences I have when I consciously choose to use a physical object instead of a digital one. Handwritten notes, hardback books, and typewriters. So much fun.

Cal Newport, author of the great book Digital Minimalism, issued an “Analog January” challenge. This is a great idea, and something I’m trying to do. Here are some of the ideas he gives:

Read

Commit to reading 3 – 4 new books during the month. It doesn’t matter if they’re fiction or non-fiction, sophisticated or fun. The goal is to rediscover what it feels like to make engagement with the written word an important part of your daily experience.

Move

Commit to going for a walk every single day of the month. Try to make it at least 15 minutes long. Leave your phone at home: just observe the world around you and think.

Connect

Hold a real conversation with 20 different people during the monthlong challenge. These conversations can be in person or over the phone/Facetime/Skype, but text-based communication doesn’t count (you must be able to hear the other person’s voice). To hit the 20 person mark will require some advance planning: you might consider calling old friends or taking various colleagues along for lunch and coffee breaks.

Make

Participate in a skilled hobby that requires you to interact with the physical world. This could be craft-based, like knitting, drawing, wood working, or, as I’ve taken to doing with my boys, building custom circuits. This could also be athletic, like biking, bow hunting, or, as is increasingly popular these days, Brazilian Ju Jitsu. Screen-based activities don’t count. To get the full analog benefit here, you need to encounter and overcome the resistances of the physical landscape that surrounds you, as this is what our minds have evolved to understand as productive action.

Join

Join something local that meets weekly. For many people, this might be the hardest commitment, but it’s arguably one of the most important, especially as we enter a political season where the pseudo-anonymity and limbic-triggers of the online world attempt to bring out the worse in us. There’s nothing more fundamentally human than gathering with a group of real people in real life to work on something real together. This has a way of lessening — even if just briefly — the sense of anxious despair that emanates from the online upside down.

I suggest you pick one of these areas and set a goal. Don’t try and do them all. Pick one, put it on your calendar on a regular basis, and lightly track your progress in your journal, on a goal tracker, or even on a sheet of paper stuck to the fridge. One small change can make a big difference over time if you stick with it. Tracking your progress gives you natural times to look back and see the difference.


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Change Your Medium to Change Your Results

For years, and this is pretty embarrassing to admit, I had the goal to write blog posts. I learned a lot about website development. WordPress became a tool I knew well. Recently Hugo and static site generators have been my favorite hobby. I loved everything about website development. (Here comes the embarrassing part.) But I hated writing content.

I would fire up my favorite text editor or focused writing app and stare at the screen. Nothing came easily. I could sometimes eek out a post or two but never more and never for more than a few days at a time. My perception from my student days that I was a good writer took hit after hit because I couldn’t force myself to write posts consistently.

This all changed in August 2019. I had already started the process of moving most of the rest of my writing, from meeting notes to to do lists, back onto pen and paper. The day I decided to try and write a blog post long form on paper I felt the writer’s block dam burst and the words flowed.

This doesn’t mean that writing is easy for me. I don’t know if that will ever be true. But over the last six weeks I have finally been able to consistently write content that I want to share.

Changing my medium made all the difference.

I’ve found this works in a lot of areas. I now write notes to my kids instead of texts. They read them! They even reply in kind! Sending out handwritten invitations to dinner gets much better responses than an emails. And a snail mail letter makes an impression that a thousand pings or texts can’t match.

This isn’t a call for reversion away from technology. Just don’t count out the power of mediums you might not normally consider. Changing your environment and your medium can free your mind to do better work.


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Holiday Fun: Scoring a Baseball Game on Paper

Recently my family went together to a KC Royals baseball game, only my second live game of the season. Usually at the park I’m on my phone between innings (along with nearly everyone else!) but I decided it would be a pen and paper only game. I wasn’t interested in journaling during the game and the Royals have once again not give us much to be grateful for this season, so instead I decided I would learn how to score the game.

This is new to me. When my boys played little league I helped coach and I love to watch baseball. I just never had anyone teach me how to score a game. (And I was always a bit embarrassed about this when I was asked to help out at their games. Run the scoreboard? Sure. Score the game? Sorry, I don’t know how to do that.)

We arrived just before first pitch and I got the lineup info entered. Then I realized I had no idea what to do next. I asked the folks around me if they knew how to keep score, but no one did.

Luckily the internet saved me. The Art of Manliness, one of my favorite blogs, had a great article on scoring a game with pencil and paper. By the bottom of the 2nd inning I was in the groove!

It turns out watching baseball while keeping score is much more exciting than just watching. There’s so much more context! The ballpark also has a lot of little helps, hidden in plain sight, to help people keeping score. Not sure if that double play in the 4th inning was a 6-4-3 or a 4-6-3? Wait for the batter to come back up and the right score will be on the big screen.

Subtracting my phone from the game made it so much better. Adding in the great tradition of scoring by hand made the game come alive. Analog for the win again!


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Back to Pen and Ink

In the last six months my wife and I have been going through boxes of old books and papers from years past. You see, we have made some major moves in our 16 years together, including two international moves that basically forced us to start over from zero. the one place we were able to keep some mementos was in my parents’ basement. This spring my Mom, who allowed us to keep the stuff there for years longer than it should have been (Thanks Mom!), finally told us it was time to come and reclaim our stuff. Fair enough!

We took eight boxes of thins back to our house and they landed in our garage. A few months later we spent a Saturday going through everything, deciding what to keep and what to let go. That in itself is a group experience. Thank Marie Kondo for teaching us how to thank things for the joy they brought us and then let them go!)

College textbooks, old novels, and other stuff that seemed important at the time but isn’t really now all went to the thrift store. Photos, journals, important books and letters, and childhood mementos were taken out, experienced again, and found a new home. It was a great way to spend an afternoon.

One of the interesting thins I discovered was that I used to take a ton of notes. The time in my life when I experienced the most personal growth and positive changes was the time that I also took the most handwritten notes. Agendas from meetings were filled with notes. I filled the margins of books with notes. Every scrap of paper seemed stuffed with my handwriting. I was frankly amazed—I don’t remember being a person who wrote much, especially by hand.

That time in my wife was before I had much access to technology. My cell phone was just for calls, my computer use was either in a computer lab or on a family computer, and the most important possessions I had were books and musical instruments.

I subsequent years I would start to acquire digital things like a laptop and a PDA, then later an iPod, a smartphone, etc. I lived overseas and, though I loved to read, couldn’t always afford to buy English books. Ebooks became one of the most precious thins in my life. It also led me to learn about Linux, some computer programming, and eventually to the awesome job I have working at a software company. I love all of this and am so grateful for it.

I also miss my analog life.

That day, going through the memories and remainders of my pre-digital life, I wanted so much to reclaim the part of me that spent hours taking notes by hand. I know I lost a bit of myself when I decided to going all-in on a digital life was the thing for me.

I started with small steps:

  • Having a pen and notebook with me each day
  • Reading physical books

Has my life drastically changed? Not in major terms but it has in some important small details. My memory is better. Things I write as handwritten notes stick in my mind better. (This was one of my biggest concerns! No search functions in a paper notebook.) I won’t go into the details here of the system I use, but I can say it has made me more efficient rather than less.


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