Increase productivity by going low-tech

Something I’m interested in, beyond college admissions, is economics. I wish I had studied it back in college. And one topic that keeps coming up in the economics blogs and podcasts I follow is the problem of productivity. We have tons of high-tech computing power that makes most tasks easier and faster, yet productivity as a whole hasn’t grown significantly in 40 years. That puzzles a lot of people.

There are several theories about what’s going on, but the one that seems to feel right to a lot of people is that the computers that are so good at helping us save time are just as good—or better—at helping us waste time. This seems especially true since the advent of the smart phone. The tools we have to help us be productive are filled with distractions that kill productivity.

It’s for this reason that digital detoxes have become so popular. By going completely without a device or internet access for a period of time, we can re-connect with ourselves and our community and our world in an inspiring and life-affirming way. Or something like that. I don’t know, I don’t really have the luxury of going tech-free, and I bet you don’t either. It’s a great plan for a super-fabulous vacation, but not really feasible for most of us during the normal day.

There are also tweaks and adjustments to your device settings that can help make your phone less distracting. The Center for Humane Technology recommends turning off as many notifications as possible, hiding icons for distracting apps, and setting your phone to grayscale, among other things. These make a lot of sense.

Using the basic premise that the more times you look at your phone, the more frequently you’re distracted by mindless things that kill your attention and productivity, I’d also recommend replacing some functions with a low-tech, non-distractive alternative. You can boost your productivity (not just for homework or studying, but for anything that’s important to you that loses your attention due to digital distraction) by going low tech in a few specific, targeted ways.

You’re probably not going to do all of these (full disclosure: I don’t do all of these), but even one or two can help keep you doing the things you want to do instead of getting sucked into the phone.

Wear a (not-smart) watch. I’ve heard plenty of people ask “why wear a watch, when your phone, computer, and appliances all show the time?” Watches are thought of as a fashion accessory, not a functional item. But the answer to “why wear a watch?” may be “because looking at a watch to tell the time takes a fraction of a second, while looking at your phone to tell the time takes a fraction of a second…plus five minutes to reply to texts, check the newest tweets, and play a quick round of whatever game you’re currently addicted to.” Obviously, using a smart watch with all the distracting notifications built in doesn’t solve the problem. You can get a decent watch that tells the time and maybe the date for twenty dollars.

Use an alarm clock that isn’t your phone. The farther away your phone (or tablet or laptop) is from your bed, the better. It’s not healthy in any sense of the word to fall asleep using your phone or use it first thing in the morning. If you need your phone next to your bed for the alarm to wake you up, you can get an alarm clock.

Use a paper calendar and journal. Before there were task apps and calendar apps and planning apps, there was writing things down on paper. It worked, and still can. Productivity-boosting journals like the Self Journal and Bullet Journal are trendy lately, so there are lots to choose from. If you’re using any kind of organizer or planner to help yourself stay on track, then keeping it off your phone is a wise idea. Few things get us off track like our phones. For a hybrid, best-of-both-worlds solution, I keep my to-do list on a Google Doc, so it’s easy to copy and paste and rearrange things. It never gets lost. But then I print it out each morning and use the paper copy to cross things off and add notes through the day.

Take class notes by hand. Taking notes by hand not only helps you avoid the distractions on your computer, but it might also make your note-taking a lot more effective. There are some compelling reasons why professors should not ban laptops from their classrooms, but the ones who do usually report strong results. If you don’t take notes in class (full disclosure: I never did), then you probably should. Even if you never read over them, just the act of taking them helps you focus.

Play card games, with real physical cards. There are a couple of reasons why playing solitaire with actual cards is better than playing games on your phone. It takes longer, and it takes more work to play a game, so you’re less likely to play it as often or for as long. Unlike most games for your phone or computer, playing cards are not designed to make you addicted. Plus, it’s hard to sneak in a card game under your desk while you should be paying attention in class. And card games are fun!

To be clear, this isn’t moralizing about how much you use your phone or a “what’s the matter with kids these days” rant. Every adult I know is just as stuck to their phone as any high school student I’ve taught (except for maybe one, that guy in fifth period English next to the window). But if you’ve ever found yourself wishing you didn’t get so easily pulled into your phone or tablet, then some low-tech tweaks might really make a difference for you.

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