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How Analog Rituals Can Amp Your Productivity

More efficient doesn't always mean more productive. The advantages of slowing down and prioritizing the old-fashioned wayby hand.

As a society, we are engaged in a constant pursuit to be more productive. For the most part, this is a good thing. We want to work smarter. We crave efficiency. Time is our most precious commodity, and productivity tools help us spend it more wisely.

ver the past few years, I have observed all sorts of methods for productivity. One consistent surprise is the role of monotonous rituals and what could be described as “analog drudgery” among the especially productive. For such accomplished people, I am shocked by the apparent lack of efficiency in their daily routines.

At one point during my research for Making Ideas Happen, I interviewed Bob Greenberg, the legendary CEO of the digital agency R/GA. With high-flying clients like Nike and other household names, Greenberg is overseeing a tremendous number of heavyweight projects at any point in time. He’s a busy guy and he’s been leading his industry for decades.

One consistent surprise is the role of monotonous rituals and what could be described as ‘analog drudgery’ among the especially productive.

Despite his digital interests, Greenberg’s productivity tools are entirely analog. He uses a paper agenda with a series of lists written at the top that he writes every single day. In the morning, Greenberg will manually bump uncompleted tasks from the previous day to the current day. He also re-writes the names of key clients and other areas of focus; often transcribing the same names again and again, daily, for weeks if not months or years.

When I hear about such monotonous and repetitive work, my instinct is to make it more efficient. If Greenberg used a digital system — even a spreadsheet — he could save a significant amount of time. Even better, he could use an online project management tool that automatically bumped everything to the following day for him. Scratch that; he’s a CEO! Why doesn’t he have an assistant that does this all for him?!

For Greenberg, it’s all about feeling the granularity of prioritization. By manually bumping a certain task every day, he feels that it is incomplete. He is faced with the reality and forced to either complete the task, delegate it, or bump it again.

And it’s not just Greenberg who operates like this. Many admired (and extremely effective) leaders use an analog approach to productivity as a way to stay accountable and feel connected to their decisions around how they spend their energy.

It’s all about feeling the granularity of prioritization.

Yes, monotony and routine can be truly wearisome. They transform our colorful, over-stimulated existence into black and white. But a task left undone SHOULD be a burden. If you make your system for productivity too productive, you will become anesthetized to your responsibilities.

We are left with an important lesson: The manual labor involved with productivity is valuable. Repetitive rituals will make you pause. You will feel burdened, but you will also catch a glimpse of just how busy you are and what you should prioritize.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (42)
  • George Heidekat

    Thanks for the story and the observations, Scott. Greenberg’s not the only one. This morning, as I do at end of every month, I’ll unwrap a fresh, lined notebook and manually lay out the next four weeks. One spread per day.
    “Friday OCT. 1 2010” “Saturday OCT. 2 2010” “Sunday OCT. 3 2010…” With a fountain pen.

    It’s not drudgery. It calms me down. Engages all my senses in the perception of where I’ve been and where I’m headed. Reminds me that the laptop is not the world. And gives me an excuse to practice my calligraphy.

    Human beings are analog. We deny that fact at our peril.

  • sebastiian

    Of course. More productive is an old mantra that is hard to decostruct.

    Is the default mode.

    It’s like if people turns productive mode on and they forget why are they doing it.

    Like I saw in a movie recently “the human race” (with race like in a car’s race).

    One needs to go to boxes and think (and select) what is really going to make a difference in their case. The tools (analog or digital) are easy to find (I know because I’m developing a tool that tries to maximize synchronicities in a company’s tribe).

    And yes, the manual (tangible) stuff, sometimes is better because more of your senses are involved in using them (like smell of the ink or the paper you are using to write or sketch).

    The more senses you use, the more naturally your attention will be drove to process the subject. Specially visual.

  • Fzgy

    Digital calendars are useful for setting an alarm reminder, but nothing beats being able to flip through the pages of the past, present and future.

    As a self-professed geek, most people think my diary is on my computer. Not so! My creative side prefers good ole pen and paper. I like to be able to hold my life in my hands instead of staring at it on a screen, and planning for “next week” or “next month” means something more when you turn a page.

    Plus, my filofax is filled with doodles and drawings – I love reading, but nothing beats an instant visual reminder of what needs to be done, or, retrospectively, what happened that day.

  • spongefile

    I’ve found that Today Todo for iPhone is the perfect happy medium between these kinds of analog tasks and digital convenience. You still have to manually bump tasks each day, but you’re not lost in a million scraps of paper, and can schedule things to appear at a later date. But beyond that, it doesn’t try getting all fancy on you. Everything else is manual, which has indeed made me more productive. I don’t think there’s something magic in wood pulp and graphite, but rather, as the article says, it’s good to be forced to do something about the stuff you haven’t done.

  • John Wildgoose

    ‘granularity’ I like that, as a photographer especially so.

    I like old school. It shows a certain integrity, it’s more ‘out there’ than anything written in an iPad, emailed from a Blackberry, or squawked into a dictophone… hang on, dicataphones are now old school… Tactility is something we are increasingly deprived of. I want to touch more than a keyboard during the day.

    Give me a good pen and a Moleskin pad and I’ll always be organised
    Give me a tool shed and I’ll never need to replace anything I can mend
    Give me woollen clothes and I’ll always be warm (and I won’t smell)
    Give me a steel framed bicycle and I’ll always get there

  • Josh Fink

    My father does this on yellow legal notepads. He has been doing it for years and while technology has come and gone, he is still one of the most productive people I have ever known.

    Great post!

  • breadwild

    Interesting read, and the first two comments where affirming (I love my fountain pens). Most major world religions have figured out the ritual and the repetition. Even last night, as I did Evening Prayer out of the Book of Common Worship (Anglican) for the umpteenth time, I felt a real sense of calm in the midst of a crazy week. Thank you so much for this piece (peace).

  • Christopher McLaughlin

    I completely agree George. There is something therapeutic about the “granularity of prioritization.” I can’t count myself in the company of Greenberg, but I do have a little pride in the “hey, I do that too!” camaraderie I am feeling at the moment.

    Great article Scott! Now I don’t have a defense for my archaic organizational habits.

  • Jacqueline

    I just wrote about keeping my Big Scary List of Things To Do in a paper form – it is comforting and feels so right.

  • Oscar

    totally agree with this old-fashion way of organization, i use a notebook divided into 4 categories (that i figured out over the corse of few year running a business):
    – To-do (refreshed everyday and subdivided into important/urgent tasks)
    – Projects
    – Sales/Leads/Opportunities
    – Marketing

    i also have a page used as backburner reviewed every other week.

    Creativity x Organization = Impact
    (i guess it’s from one of Scott’s book and i makes a lot of sense)

    thanks for sharing,

    Oscar French

  • Jeff

    Great reminder, Scott.

    By career, I am a Software Engineer/Architect.
    By Design, I am a creative being.

    Using Balance to master efficiency and keep my creative edge, now that is the key (for me). I want my next haircut appt digital and easy to find and in one place. I want the creative and problem solving side of me to have input manually into my day as well (and be able to think “outside the box”).


    Key is to find a tool that works for you, use it diligently, and take a check point on occassion to see if something is missing. If you do not get enough tactile and creative input, then you may have moved to far toward the matrix. If you have paper everywhere and can’t find things quickly to react when needed, it may be time to move more digitally.

    For me, I am on a computer all day long for work, so I spend as much time on paper as I can. My best stuff is not discovered from a keyboard. It is written in the margin of some thoughts on paper…

    My coworkers show up to meetings with laptops. Period. No pens, no paper. I only show up with a notebook and pen… When they are scrambling for plugging in and booting up and being sidetracked by messages duirng the meeting, I am busy innovating and letting my mind go where it naturally goes… Neither method is right or wrong, but rather only one method is right for each person. Discover your own method, and don’t worry what others are doing…
    Cheers to your success,


  • Shea Naer

    Beautifully written, Scott. Although I use various methods, the tangible journal works nicely, and adds an importance and verve to my entries. Just as an electronic signature feels alien, it only makes sense that the analog methods carry a solid authenticity.

    It will be a frightful day, when our five year olds are finger painting, but only through some virtual reality of a screen.

  • Paul Gaj

    I start every day with a hand written list of notes and doodles.

  • Frank Della Rosa

    I occassionally enjoy a departure from digital, since I spend most of my professional life working with technology. I miss the tactile feel of writing. Granular polarity is a wonderful way to express it. Thanks.

    My work sometimes involves brining the analog to digital communications so that clients have a better understanding of what a customer is thinking. Analog clues are so important for reading people and much of that is lost when all communication is digital – -apart from emoticons. For me, there is greater to connection to something I write versus something I type or say.

  • Paul Hammond

    I had a digital calendar, along with an assistant – but the problem was I still Kept missing MY meetings – why, because it was all created in virtual time. virtual time is meaningless to me throughout my busy work day as i go about getting things done. And, it is ‘other’ people trying to dominate, steal, detour, delay, chat, natter, gossip MY time from MY priorities. How else can you make a thoughtful decision? it really is a case of ‘Just Do it – Yourself ;-)’

  • lou

    problem is, you now have to carry your organizer AND your iphone/blackberry now. thats what kills it for me. i will (unintentionally) leave my moleskine behind sometimes. rarely the phone.

  • christine apa

    This is awesome. I thought I was a freak for doing this everyday. I am glad to know that there are successful people using this system. There is nothing like the feeling of crossing off something off of your list that has been transfered over for days.

  • Elliott F.

    i am very interesting in moving over to analog these days because i have found the interfaces on all these systems just don’t lend themselves to helping organize me. i know the common argument is that you have to have the paper on you at all times – but i found that i do work in two places only. at home, and at work. if i want to do work in a coffee shop (which i don’t do), then remembering to bring my paper organizer would have to be as important as remembering to bring the laptop.

  • Roy Pickron

    Yesâ?¦ Excellent information.

    If you would like see additional people that used this type of medium check outâ?¦

  • Stefania Lucchetti

    I completely agree. Using a notebook to write task lists and jot down ideas as they come to mind is what I always advise my clients to do to enhance their mental bandwidth.

  • Selena Narayanasamy

    I love this article. I work in the Internet Marketing industry, and needless to say I depend on technology and the digital world practically all day. One of my usual morning rituals is to sit down and literally write out what I need to do- seeing it on paper and writing it out helps solidify it in my mind.

    I’ve tried using to do list type things online or on my desktop, but really when it comes down to it, I end up writing it out.

    I may or may not be totally in love with the Behance action method paper products and have them stacked up by my desk…. 🙂

  • deedee

    i’m so happy you wrote this article.

    i keep a notebook [with my favorite pen…i’m a graphic designer] open all day long. i write the date, the tasks for the day, color breakouts, time spent on projects, ideas, every phone call, thoughts, lists, etc.

    i work in the tech world however, being more right brained than left, the color of the ink, the way it’s written, where it is on the page, and the ‘task’ of writing it down makes it more real and leaves a more memorable impression in my mind.

    i tried going digital and lost my mind.

  • Keri

    I love this article. Yesterday I noted my daughter using her “analog” calendar book even though she is a real techie kind of girl and I asked why. She said there is something very satisfying writing things with a pen or pencil and it is not the same making a note on her I-Phone. She actually uses both but I remember hearing from a teacher many years ago that taking notes and writing seems to embed it in ones mind…I don’t think hitting repeat when you are constantly not doing a certain task gives you the same push that rewriting it would. And now that I am retired keeping a journal is such a wonderful daily ritual. I write and daydream in my journal. I sketch and make notes about colors I would like to use in my next painting and yes, I carry things over because even retired there are never enough hours in the day.

  • oliver davies

    i also right out a list of tasks that need to be done, on a pad of a4… principally because it helps me remember and map out what i need to do. plus i always have it visible on my desktop… not the case with google tasks, for example, that can get easily lost in numerous browser windows.

  • Jon

    There’s tremendous power in writing as it involves more of your senses and neurology than typing. Top leaders and visionaries consistently read, consistently write.

    If one needs a framework, this is a good system that’s a bit similar to what Mr. Greenberg does:

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