Let’s Get Physidal

A few years ago, I gave a talk at Ignite Dallas about Surviving a Day in the Life as a Cyborg Professional.

I happened to watch it again a few weeks ago, and I realized I had pretty good advice (some of it, I need to be better at taking myself!)

But one thing I am consistently and ardently a supporter of is the role of paper in my digitally-saturated life.

In the video, I share that it’s important to “Get Physidal.”

What the Heck Does “Physidal” Mean?

One of my personal tricks for surviving a saturated digital daily existence is to NOT use screens for every aspect of my life.

I use screens to interface with my work, my friends, my entertainment, my ideation, my inspiration – a lot.

A staggering lot.

There’s research out there about the hours and hours people spend in front of screens today. This study says 9 hours a day, and for “knowledge works” like me,  it’s probably an underestimation. I have neck and back issues from the strain this causes on my neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. It gets worse all the time. And not only is sitting at desks in front of screens bad for us, so is sitting anywhere, holding a tiny screen staring down at it. All the screens man, they are affecting us.

So it’s not just a perceived issue, screen time is a very real one for today’s cyborg professionals. (Related required reading/watching to get you up to speed on my terminology inspiration here: Amber Case on Why We’re All Cyborgs Now).

So one part of my solution is a hybrid approach. Use screens, yes. Most of the time I’m not sleeping, I’m using screens (whoa, that is a scary reality, isn’t it?). Also, the average adult today uses screens more than we sleep.

So when I can avoid using screens, I try to. I use paper. It’s “physical” rather than “digital,” thus, it creates a “physidal” mode for tasks when possible – I rely on old technologies like paper, printed books, and other non-digital mediums as much as possible, but obviously, I’m using screens a ton too. But shifting some of that time to paper?

It helps.

My “Physidal” System

It’s ad-hoc, rudimentary, and evolving. Mostly, I just try not to use screens quite so much, so I shift tasks that I can easily NOT do on a screen, and do them in analog.

I use a paper planner (nerd alert). It’s great for writing things down every week, keeping bills and paperwork I need to pay attention to, and collecting ideas and thoughts that would otherwise be buried in a digital file somewhere (hello, burgeoning blog”drafts” folder and Pocket queue).

I type up and use paper task lists – a weekly version and a daily version (double nerd alert).

I take handwritten notes in meetings: on notebooks, notepads, loose paper, whatever.

I use white boards and printed materials and – again – paper for brainstorming activities with my team, to force our brains to switch out of the distracted state of digital mode and exercise another part of our brains.

I invest in great pens, and good paper, and make the experience of just using a physical recording object an enjoyable and different tactile experience.

I convinced my husband to try notecards to keep track of his tasks (ok, well, maybe I influenced this rather than convinced, but still), and he now swears by it. I hear him saying things like “I need to get back to my notecards system, I’m not feeling like I’m getting much done” (liberally paraphrased quote there). And I’m like “yeah, paper, amiright?”

I have a reputation for always having a pen and paper on hand. In my purse, car, or in a meeting. People look to me to be able to write it down. (Nerd badge of honor, if you ask me).

I still buy print books (although, I’ll admit, I am being won over by ebooks – curse you, convenient screens!) and print magazines.

We try to limit TV time (for kids and adults) in our house and have a nightly habit of reading (print!) books to our daughter before bed time.

You get the picture.

So, why is being “physidal” so important?

1) Pysidal Harnesses Mindfulness (As Seen in Research)

Sometimes people rib me a little for my paper habit. (You guys, I am such an avid recycler that it’s not even funny, so I am doing my partt on that end). As far as the teasing goes, it’s ok, I can handle it. I was homeschooled, and have curly hair it took me a while to figure out, after all, so I’ve got years’ worth of thick skin built up I’m happy to now leverage as an adult. But anyway. Paper: I’m a believer. You should be one too.

Which is why it makes me happy when research helps prove my point for me.

I present: a study showing why taking paper notes is more effective than taking notes on a computer. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Writing by hand leverages a different type of cognitive processing – that actually requires you to process information
  • Writing by hand helps you digest the information because you’re slower at it than typing so you have to synthesize the most important information to capture the right thought
  • Typing on computer is basically just transcribing, and doesn’t seem to force you to process the information, you’re basically just a human recording device
  • That also means, typing will create a lot more information to have to sort, whereas paper notes can be more direct and require less time later to digest
  • Laptops are super distracting devices that enable excessive multitasking and have wide open doors to things that all basically boil down to: not paying attention to what’s being said
  • Writing paper notes forces you to focus in on what you’re notating – so more single-minded focus with note taking as opposed to open-opportunity distraction with laptop transcribing

So, basically, using paper to keep track of things (notes, from the study, but also tasks, lists, and ideas, from my personal experience) takes advantage of more mindfulness, and creates deeper cognitive processes around your ideas.

Plus, as I mentioned before, it just creates less time in front of a screen, which I also think is healthy for your overall personhood and mindfulness. I EXIST OUTSIDE OF MY SCREEN!

2) Physidal Creates Moments of Serendipity

But here’s another unexpected bonus for the “physidal” approach: serendipity and inspiration.

Take me for example: I have mountains and piles of paper notes from meetings and on projects — paper notebooks, legal style, spiral, big, small, and post-it stacks — of course, I have to find time to liberate myself from the mountains of paper this creates once a year or so (I just got my desk top inbox– my actualy, physical top of my desk) down to paper zero last week, hooray!) but in the process, I’ve found I’m much more likely to revisit my paper documents (they are “artifacts” after all) and create unexpected moments with previous thoughts than my digital content. Yes, physical paper creates the problem of lots of paper to deal with later. But this problem is also an opportunity to come in face-to-face contact with ideas you have recorded that you may also have totally forgotten about in the intervening time.

My digital content is better at being sorted and searched, yes. It’s more portable and archivable and flexible in many ways. But it’s really bad at presenting me with things I’m not currently thinking about or wanting to know more about (selection bias, or something) or algorithmically tuned or automated to show me things I want to see (and mostly for new ideas, most tools aren’t great at showing ME my own OLD ideas). Paper is great at this. It creates moments of serendipity that I honestly just don’t experience in any other venue. Timehop doesn’t count.

I think this is one of the most spiritual elements of the physidal approach.

Encountering your past self in a raw, tangible, and fleeting form.

The culling process for dealing with paper artifacts you’ve created forces you to examine the idea and ask yourself questions about it.

“Is this old to-do list worth saving, or have I completed all these tasks? No, and there’s an important one I need to remember to do!”

“Is this list of a blog post ideas I wrote down a year ago still viable? If so, I need to activate my action bias and type them up right away! If not, into the recycling pile you go.”

“Is this business idea something I should pursue?”

“Is this story idea still interesting to me?”

“Why/what was I doing at this time in life that was such a fertile spot for ideation?”

“Should I still launch that website I planned and started building three years ago?”


I mean, you can get some seriously awesome inspiration from facing your former self. And when it’s tucked away in digital files, that’s less accessible, in my experience anyway.

3) Physidal Anchors to the Physical Present

As  much as digital tools these days are real-time, there’s something esoteric and distant about them. But with a physidal system, I am anchored right in to the world literally right in front of me. And that’s important. As a parent, and a spouse, and a friend and just as a human, it’s becoming more and more critical for me to practice being present and not tied up in the digital world. Because there is so much in the digital realm.

But there’s also so much here in the physical present. And I think it’s important to anchor into that and build the practice of being present. I kind of think about how the practice of yoga helps me create a mind-body awareness. The practice of physidal creates an awareness of presence that’s important to maintain, and will probably only increase in its difficulty as a discipline as technology advances.

The Physical + Digital Are Bridging

In a lot of ways, there’s a big connect between the Internet of Things movement and the physidal compromise. Yes, there is a lot technology involved in the Internet of Things. It’s the bias these days, technology first, and that’s still my mindset. But balancing the connection between technology and the real things that exist in the world around us, in physical space, is the next technological revolution, and unless you live under a rock (or don’t read the Internet, in which case, thank whoever printed this post out onto paper for you to read for following my implied instructions so literally), the era of the Internet of Things is upon us, at least, if this year’s CES is a predictor of what’s next in consumer electronics, as its name would imply.

My rudimentary paper-based systems are great, and I still think there’s something important and powerful about using untethered physical objects, like books and paper, because of the mindfulness, intentionality, and obstacles they present us with. Physical things force us to reckon with them. There’s something deeply meaningful (while also highly annoying) about that process of dealing with things if you let it be (join me in my journey to de-clutter my living space from excess physical possessions, for example. That’s some emotional, tangible stuff right there.)

But the age is coming when even the physical will be increasingly digital. Heck, you can go on Amazon and buy a physidal Moleskin “smart” notebook that will digitally transcribe your handwritten notes for you so you don’t have to scan them later (if you wanted to in the first place).

So, yeah.

What do you think about building the discipline of being “physidal” and not purely digital? How important is it to you to unplug, turn away from the screen, and practice being present? Where do you struggle with this most? I’d love to chat about it in the comments.

Tiffany Monhollon

Tiffany Monhollon

Tiffany Monhollon enjoys reading, writing, and DIY projects, and has been dreaming about starting a site dedicated to these and other topics she geekily obsesses about for many years. One day, she decided to just go for it, and Geekfully was finally born. She writes about pretty much whatever suits her, from reviews to advice to tutorials and more, and if you're reading this, then hopefully that means these things suit you too.

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