In the last 20 years, we’ve replaced books with screens, voices with the text, and sitting together in person with broadcasting the details of our lives as though we are reality TV stars. We’ve done this at a breakneck pace, never really questioning whether it’s actually making our lives better.
I’m not sure it is. Some of the opportunity costs include mental health, productivity, and the time we have left with people who matter most to us. Often, the reality is that the tools that intended to bring us closer together have pulled us further apart.
But analog has persisted throughout this.
- Publishers still print physical books—more than ever before.
- The voice functions on our phones still work.
- From moleskines to habit trackers—the notebook industry is thriving.
- Board game cafes and escape rooms have popped up despite easy access to thousands of games in the app store.
In an increasingly digital world, there’s a power to analog that technology can’t replicate. A thousand likes on Facebook can’t replace a warm hug from someone who cares about you. The rapid excessive consumption of digital media can’t replace the solitude, presence, and reflection that comes from reading a physical book.
As a society, we’re overstimulated with information. With so much input and so much competing for our attention, it’s damn near impossible to transform knowledge into wisdom. But by leveraging the power of analog in an increasingly digital world, we can take a step in the right direction. We can decrease the volume of noise and increase the volume of our creative output.
Analog is Distraction-Free by Default
By replacing digital with analog in parts of our lives, the default setting becomes distraction-free. Whether you’re reading a book or writing in a notebook, nothing is competing for your attention other than the words on the page. You don’t have to install distraction blocking tools, apply hacks or follow a bunch of tips.
When you start your day on the internet, you put your brain into a frenzy. There’s more time of day when your brain is in a more suggestive state. If you start the morning by scrolling through Instagram, checking your email, and updating your status, you start the day with a self-imposed handicap and cognitive deficit.
Because it’s distraction-free by default, going analog helps increase your attention span. You develop your capacity for longer and longer stretches of uninterrupted creation time.
“The physical realness of books contributes to our ability to enter the space where we can dwell un-judged with our hard-won thoughts and multilayered emotions and feel we have found our way home.” – Maryanne Wolf
Dani Shapiro has had a multi-decade career as a working writer. She’s written multiple books; some of which have become best-sellers. I interviewed her for The Unmistakable Creative in 2014 after reading her book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. I had read the Kindle version of the book.
But after our conversation, I bought the physical version of the book. From that point forward, I stopped reading on Kindle and switched exclusively to physical books. I’ve returned to Dani’s book dozens of times over the last few years. I’ve quoted her work in my own books. I can’t say the same for 98% of the books on my Kindle.
Ryan Holiday has written 6 books in 6 years; and the seventh, just showed up on my doorstep last night. Ryan maintains an extensive physical library. In addition, he uses an analog notecard system to remember and take action on what he reads.
This is difficult, time consuming, and inefficient. But, the ROI is could be a thriving career. When I asked him about this, he said, “Most of these cards lead to nothing. But one of them is enough to build a career. I wrote the idea for The Obstacle is the Way on a card four years before I wrote the book. That book went on to sell 300,000 copies.”
You may not have any interest in writing books. But its worth considering the difference between reading physical books and reading on a screen. When we read on screens, we don’t read. We scan. Chances are you scanned what you’re reading now. Do you remember anything from the introduction of this post?
In her book, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, Maryanne Wolf says that we have become so inundated with information that “The average person in the United States now reads daily the same number of words as is found in many a novel. Unfortunately, this form of reading is rarely continuous, sustained, or concentrated; rather, the average 34 gigabytes consumed by most of us represent one spasmodic burst of activity after another.”
Years after Kindle, Amazon started opening up bookstores. Their website is for searching. But readers go to bookstores to browse. And people still love physical books. If you want to remember and take action on what you read, ditch your Kindle and switch to physical books.
At the beginning of this last year, I interviewed Ryder Caroll about his new book, The Bullet Journal Method. I’ve always been an early adopter of technology, and productivity apps. I decided to give the bullet journal a try for a month, and it’s become my best tool for working on my essential priorities.
I still have tasks in tools like Notion that are project related. But the bullet journal is what I use to plan my days.
You should always carry a notebook. Notebooks are fertile soil for creative ideas and the best distraction free writing tool there is. As I said in my most recent book, I can trace every book, blog post, and creative project back to the pages of my notebooks.
Writing by hand forces you to slow down. You can’t just fill the page with words like you can when you’re typing. While my handwriting is illegible, I’ve still found that my best piece of writing, the ones that resonated most with my readers, started in one of my notebooks.
As someone who has to get shit done despite having ADHD, taking notes on a laptop would be a disaster for me. Research shows that it’s a disaster for almost everyone.
We can all type much faster than we can write. So we can capture what we’re hearing verbatim. But that’s not the purpose of notes we take when we’re watching something, or listening to someone. We’re taking notes in order to learn, develop knowledge, and cultivate wisdom.
When you take notes by hand, you’re forced to listen, filter what’s irrelevant, and capture what’s not. You’re able to separate the signal from the noise.
Digital Communication/Social Interaction
On the TV show One Tree Hill, one of the main characters said, “Can you imagine if voice had come after texting? People would say, this is amazing, you can hear the person on the other end of the phone.”
When I was growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the futuristic phone in which you could see the other person was something we dreamt about. My parents would call India and yell from the top of their lungs because the connection was so bad. It took a while before both my parents and grandmother caught on that you no longer needed to yell.
The iPhone gives us the capability to see the people we’re talking to. Yet, I can count the number of times I’ve used the FaceTime feature one hand.
Texting has become our default way of communicating with each other. The problem is you can’t always gauge someone’s emotions via text. It’s too easy to misinterpret what someone is saying. I learned this the hard way without content strategist Kingshuk. This is why I always call him if I need to talk to him about something that’s important, that might lead to unnecessary conflict.
Not only that, texting is yet another digital input amongst the hundreds competing for our attention. So texts get buried and people don’t respond for days sometimes.
But this is about far more than voice or text. It’s humanity and evolution. There’s a huge difference between hearing the sound of someone’s voice and reading something they send you. There are subtle nuances in tone, inflection, and pace which the human brain can’t pick up from reading a text message.
Email is necessary, but hardly a tool for meaningful conversation.
What started out as a tool for increasing our efficiency has become one of our biggest sources of distraction. Executives at large companies are spending 3-5 hours a day checking email. If the highest performers in a company are doing nothing but attending meetings and checking email, it should be a serious concern for any organization.
Email comes with many of the same problems as text. Things can be misinterpreted. But a simple rule of thumb for email is this: don’t be an asshole. I’m always amazed by people who contact people they don’t even know and attack them via email. Personally, I delete these emails. If we’ve never met, then you’re probably not going to get very far by attacking me.
Emails should be used with more intention. Say less if you can. Say what you need to say. And one phone call could lead to 10 less emails. Better yet, don’t send the email at all, especially if you’re going to be an asshole.
Social Media/Dating Apps
Social media and online communities are not viable substitutes for human contact. How many of your Instagram followers will bail you out of jail at 2 am? Whether you have millions or thousands, it’s unlikely any of them will come to your rescue.
But thanks to social media, we’ve prioritized depth over reach. These things went from being connection tools to broadcasting tools. How loud can I shout? How many people will hear me? A million likes don’t come close to the face-to-face conversation from one true friend. My Facebook “friends” that I’ve formed the deepest bonds with are those I’ve met in person.
It’s one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to plan a conference. Getting to spend two days with 200 of my listeners is worth far more to me than a million downloads. A million downloads increase my metrics. But two days with 200 people increase the meaning of my life.
In my most recent conversation with Cal Newport, I asked him about dating apps.
Dating apps are a bit like social media on crack because they present us with the illusion of getting one of our major evolutionary instincts met: sex. We can meet that need just by swiping right or whatever other gesture the company chooses.
When I was working with Nick Notas as a dating coach, he said that hands down, the clients of his who have the most problems are the ones who meet people via dating apps.
If most people were brutally honest about dating apps, they’d admit their default filter is, “Would I f23k this person?” That’s not crude. It’s evolution. But when you put technology on top of thousands of years of evolution, you play with fire.
That’s not to say there haven’t been success stories. My sister and brother in law met on a dating app.
But, it’s also had a significant downside. One of my female friends said, “Nobody ever talks to me in a bar anymore, especially in SF because everybody has gotten so used to swiping.” Rather participating in social activities to increase the probability of meeting someone, we just sit on our couches swiping right in hopes of meeting someone who might want to sleep with us, and if we’re lucky it might lead somewhere meaningful.
Analog Communication/Social Interaction
A few years ago, a journalist for The New York Times published a piece titled, “Human Contact is a Luxury Good.” This is what the author of the piece said:
In Silicon Valley, time on screens is increasingly seen as unhealthy. Here, the popular elementary school is the local Waldorf School, which promises a back-to-nature, nearly screen-free education.
So as wealthy kids are growing up with less screen time, poor kids are growing up with more. How comfortable someone is with human engagement could become a new class marker.
The very people who build many of the tools that facilitate the bulk of our digital communication won’t even put their own kids in schools where this kind of technology is present. As a former guest on our podcast said when I told her this, “Yeah, Phillip Morris executives probably weren’t letting their kids smoke cigarettes either.”
When I was sitting at dinner with my parents and two of their close friends, I asked, “How often do you see each other?” They said, “At least twice a week for dinner.” My parents were immigrants so these kinds of interactions were their lifeline from the moment they came to the United States. I couldn’t think of one friend in my life who this was true with.
In the movie Crocodile Dundee, the female lead tries to explain to Mick what a therapist is. He replies, “Well, we just tell Wally. He tells everyone else. And the problem is solved.” But if we look closer at the subtext of this, what he’s saying is that social support is built right into the way we live our lives.
Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a rise in mental health issues ranging from anxiety to depression. And it isn’t just the case for teenagers and millennials. It’s true for people in older generations, too. While our technology has certainly played a role in this, it’s the behavior resulting from our technology that’s the real issue.
Because we’ve chosen a high volume of shallow digital interactions over a low deep volume of analog interactions, we’re losing our sense of community. We’re losing face to face conversation. And the quality of the face to face conversation is degrading to a point where we are in the words of Sherry Turkle, “Alone Together.”
I didn’t start planning a conference to sell tickets. I did it because I was craving human contact. It’s not a luxury good or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s a basic human need, and one I think we need to take far more seriously if we intend to correct course.
If we want to do creative work, live lives and have relationships of depth, consequence and significance, then we have to consume that kind of content, make it part of the way we live, and cultivate those kinds of relationships. One way is to embrace the power of analog.