Deep Work by Cal Newport raises an interesting question. How could it be that with all of our technological advances that knowledge workers (as opposed to factory workers) are no more efficient and faster than workers in our parents’ and grandparents’ generation even though they didn’t have access to the internet and to computers? Newport’s explanation is that this is primarily due to the fact that our work environments and work methods today are full of countless distractions which get in the way of focusing on the task before us. For me, a simple way to reduce distractions and to improve productivity is to write by hand.
An often repeated experiments is to compare students who use computers to take their class notes with those who take notes by hand. Study after study has revealed that students who take notes by hand outperform their computer-using peers. The main hypothesis to explain this phenomenon is that writing by hand forces students to synthesize the information presented before it writing it down whereas students who type are simply copying down the information that they hear verbatim. Also of interest may be the fact that writing by hand locks in a version of the note page which simplifies photographic memory retention, but I digress.
Those findings have impact beyond just the classroom and should give us pause to reevaluate and assess how to be more productive in the workplace. With a side hustle and limited amounts of time to devote to your project, even small productivity gains become all the more important.
Personally, I find that I am most productive when I draft by hand. In fact, most of the articles on this site were written by hand initially. The process of slowing down my writing speed lets me massage my words and get my thoughts down more clearly. Inspiration also hits me more often when I slow down as I think things through while writing and choosing each word carefully. The pause while switching lines or sharpening a pencil gives me split second breaks to think and digest my thoughts.
This exercise also frees me from most distractions as I can simply focus on writing without having to worry about pop-ups (Outlook: I’m thinking of you) or the desire to check something as I’m working. I also find it much easier to sit and write by hand for an hour or two than to try to type continuously for that same period of time. In addition, putting ink (or graphite) to paper forces you to move forward with your text in a way which typing simply doesn’t, as the process of scratching out or erasing is much more tedious by hand than hitting backspace on a keyboard. This adds a certain decisiveness to your writing aside from the fact that hearing the pen or pencil scratch against the paper adds a nice, soothing touch as well.
Interestingly, just about everyone has their own distinct preferences for writing instruments. I find that if you ask a group of people what each of their favourite pen or pencil is, you’ll likely get just as many different answers as the number of people you asked. This ability to personalize our analog writing experience is much more difficult to attain drafting digitally as computers and software are largely standardized. In this regard, writing by hand gives you control over your different tools and I can only presume that using an analog set-up which has been optimized for your personal preferences can only increase your productivity.
However, one of the biggest advantages of writing by hand is that it adds an additional review stage to your work. Let me explain. When you type up a document from scratch, you type it, review it on screen and then maybe print out the reviewed document to make some final changes. On the other hand, when you write your first draft by hand, you have added an additional step before typing (or dictating) from your hand-written draft. This change of medium as you are copying from one format to another allows you to bring your work to the next level and to integrate concepts which you initially didn’t think of. Naturally, this extra level is key to producing your best quality work and to your success.
So next to time you need to prepare a document, try grabbing a pen or a pencil to write it out by hand first, and see if your productivity and the quality of your work increases. Hopefully, you’ll be surprised by the results.
And for those who are curious, the first draft of this article was written using an Esterbrooke 322 steel dip pen and homemade black walnut ink in a Moleskine soft, unlined notebook. Normally, I write with a RoyalPoint Janus 929 HB pencil, but I wanted to try something else that morning to match my mood. This is truly where writing by hand shines as instead of fighting against the grain, it is flexible to adapt to your whims and moods.