Real Life Experiments: Going from Digital to Analogue (Part 1)

This is a guest article by Alastair, faithful D*I*Y Planner reader. Al is technology/gadget obsessed nut with more PDA’s, keyboards, mice, PC’s etc than would normally be considered sane. He is obsessed with books, writing, organisational tools and has an ingrained belief that some things will always be better done the “old fashioned” way because it’s still the best way to do them. He also has an iPod loaded with music from Mozart to Motorhead and he has a wonderful, tolerant girlfriend he doesn’t deserve; and two cats that politely humour him.

This is my story. Of how I came to use digital gadgets and then how I got myself out of using them. As far back as I can remember I’ve always kept a diary. At first, it was all paper based. Then one day, I saw my first Palm Pilot and decided that I couldn’t live without one. This simple moment started my quest to discover the perfect electronic planning solution. Of course, in the beginning I didn’t own a computer, so that complicated my use of the Palm. That and the fact that I decided I could live perfectly well without the new toy. So into “the drawer” it went and I didn’t think anything more about it and returned to my trusty diary and notebook. Peace was restored in the form of a brown leather, personal Filofax.

In 2003, Dell released the Axim X5 Pocket PC and again, the gadget bug bit me. Except this time it worked and just did exactly what I asked it to do. A year or so later, its big brother, the X50v, arrived (which I think is still the best Pocket PC ever made). Once again the gadget bug bit me and I started using this new device to capture my thoughts and appointments. Eventually, I graduated to the X51v but I was never as happy as I had been with the X50v. Being dissatisfied with the new system, I started looking for alternatives. During a brief meeting with an IT consultant, I discovered the Palm Treo 650.

Hooked on this new device, I made the move to an integrated device about a year and a half ago. My current system is MS Outlook based and I use it both at home and at work and all my data gets synchronized with my Treo. It works and does not cause me any real headaches. Whilst it’s been an interesting year and a half somehow my Treo is just not enough; and this is where the story of my returning to an analog lifestyle really begins.

The digital age may have brought many advantages but I also find that it comes with its own unique disadvantages. As we rely more and more in digital systems so does the feeling that our lives spin out of control. Suddenly without warning, meetings started appearing on my schedule. Seeing the free time in my life rapidly shrinking, gave me the impression that my life was out of my own control. To me, this lack of consultation denotes a lack of courtesy and as I looked at the new entry in my schedule I had a vague recollection of someone briefly mentioning that they let me know about the meeting.

The more I saw this happening, the more out of control my life felt and the more I yearned to return to an analogue system. In this quaint “old fashioned” way, I would carry a diary with me.. and then if people wanted my time, they would have to talk to me first. Analogue systems, in my opinion, promote communication, which can only be a good thing. We all go too many meetings that are utterly unnecessary and in many cases agreements can often be reached with a brief telephone call because all the person organizing the meeting usually wants to do is talk to you, person to person.

At the beginning of this year, another Palm user wrote an article about their experimentation with a return to a paper based system. I printed this out and promptly forgot about it. A few months later I found the print out, and reread it; it made me think about the benefits of an analogue system. Searching for others like me, I found that the idea of returning to paper was not an isolated case and thanks to various Google searches, reading many, many articles, and extending my research into products and systems, I was convinced that paper-based systems were making a comeback.

It has been a positive experience to find so many people committed to and returning to an analogue based lifestyle. I’ve noticed how happy people are, and how paper gave them a greater sense of control over their lives. This was the moment I decided to make the jump back to paper.

First I needed to test out my theory of returning to a paper based system. To do this I printed out month to view pages from Outlook and attached a cover and a clip and started to use it as my diary alongside the current system. The effect was almost immediate. I felt calmer, far more in control of my life than I had felt for a long time. I now use Outlook as my backup and reprint the current month a couple of times during the month to keep it tidy and again at the beginning of the following month to archive it. The Monthly view is a very useful quick reference tool, particularly if you are planning, and need a complete overview of your commitments for a given period of time. The comparative test, over the last three months, has shown me that a combined analogue/digital system works better for me than a purely digital one and consequently it’s worth the effort and commitment of making the return to an analogue based system.

In August, I also ordered and bought 7 Moleskines. One Page-per-Day Diary for 2008 from Simply Moleskines and 6 more Moleskine notebooks in both large and pocket sized, from Waterstones (I believe they were on a buy 2, get the third free sale). I had done it, I had taken the first step in moving back over to an analogue system. Except there was one small problem, it’s one thing to have the gadgets. But it’s another thing to actually KNOW HOW you are going to use them. And at this point, I had no idea how I was going to use my new notebooks. I needed a system and didn’t have one to make the transition easy. A diary and pile of notebooks look nice but they don’t actually constitute a system.

As a result of this hole in my thinking, the euphoria of my brave new world dried up faster than a puddle in the desert. I knew I needed to do something and fast. I picked up a copy of “Getting Things Done” and whilst reading this I reviewed my current system and did more online research to discover what other people have been doing. GTD doesn’t solve all my problems but it did make me think differently. Which is what I needed to shift my approach to and overall viewpoint of how I work, my system for achieving things, and what I need from it. It also gave me a clear plan for developing my own Levenger-style PDA that supported my new system by enabling me to track my work; and for that alone, I am very grateful.

On January 1st, 2008 I implemented my Moleskine analogue based system. I plan on making my own brown, leather cover (still undecided on whether or not I want a pen loop and how to keep it closed). I may use a cut out similar to the gfeller design to allow me to continue to use the elastic band built into the Moleskine or I may opt to add a strap and toggle to secure it. Too many decisions, too little time!

The plan for 2008 onwards, is to use my Moleskine as my primary diary and to use MS Outlook as my digital backup. This will enable me to print off month to view sheets which, while in use, reside in the diary at the current day. Once the month is complete, I’ll print out a final draft of the month and then archive it on the first day of the month it refers to. At this point, a new month to view sheet gets printed used.

For the first couple of months I will continue to use my Treo and measure the level of usefulness it provides and at that point decide on whether to continue to sync it with Outlook. I know this system will need some tweaking along the way, but I hope that great things come out of this experiment. If not then I hope, if nothing else, my life gets calmer and feels more in my control.

I’ll be returning to this later this year when I will write down my thoughts about how this experiment worked, didn’t work, developed and the effect, if any, it had on my life.

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