The Hidden Danger of Digital Organization

I’m a big fan of digital organization tools like online calendars and to-do list and notes apps. Instant cloud backups, synching across devices, and infinite editing are a powerful and convenient combination. For a long time I didn’t see much value in physical organization, at least for my own needs. In comparison to a few apps on my phone (which I always have), paper notes and planners seemed like a waste of resources and space, things I could lose or forget just when I needed them. My only real use for physical notes was jotting down the odd thought or making a quick note on scratch paper. I saw digital tools as the solution to everything, and I didn’t see any drawbacks to that philosophy. However, I’ve since realized that keeping it all digital has a hidden danger.

The pitfall of digital organization is this: putting the entire informational structure of your life within your electronic devices (designed to be as addictive as possible) right next to your social media apps (also designed to be as addictive as possible) makes it far too easy to go from one to the other. If your calendar and to-do list are just two taps away from Instagram or Twitter, you’re going to find yourself checking them. Left unchecked, your rat brain will always take the shortest possible path to instant gratification and dopamine—and you minimize that path by keeping all your organization at the doorstep of the internet. As a result, you build the habit of checking your social media apps every time you access your calendar or your to-do list. Even if you don’t use social media, the same goes for games, news, etc. You create a link between (constructively) accessing your organization and (unconstructively) sinking your attention into feeds and apps.

I only noticed this phenomenon after becoming more aware of how much social media, my phone, and my computer were degrading my attention span. I started to observe how often without thinking I’d automatically tab over to social media. I’d open my phone to check my calendar and without making a conscious decision I’d find myself in a completely different app. There goes another 20 minutes (or more!) of cycling through all of the feeds at my fingertips. I spend enough time scrolling and watching things already, I don’t need or want to do that every time I want to write something down.

Here lies one of the great benefits of physical notes: they’re tangible objects that exist in the space around you. They contain only the information you’ve put there; you can’t turn the page over and tumble into a Youtube rabbit hole. To some of you physical organization diehards this may seem quite obvious, and I salute your wisdom! This is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way. Growing up with the internet has enabled me in countless ways, but I’m starting to reckon with its very real effects on my brain and behavior.

I haven’t completely switched over to physical organization, but I have found uses for physical notes that I used to look to a digital tool for. I find that keeping my daily to-do list physical is especially helpful. In addition to avoiding the temptation of the internet, the ritual of rewriting my to-do list on a fresh page helps me to mentally reset and look at the day as a blank slate. Throwing out the old list and transferring any incomplete items to the new one helps me to flush my working memory and focus just on what I have in front of me. There’s a real psychological trick here! Compare a fresh to-do list of 5 items with a partially completed list containing the same 5 items and 5 more that are already checked off. In my experience, it’s much easier to knock out one from the fresh list than to muster the effort to work on the exact same item on the partial list. Remaking my to-do list helps me to see the day as a new opportunity to move my life forward, and makes it easier to take that first step.

I use a yellow legal pad to keep this “daily” to-do list. I call it daily, but really this list holds everything I want myself to take care of at the present. I write out a few different section headings to organize the list (currently I have “General”, “Apartment”, and “Financial”), and add new to-dos to each section as they come. Once the page starts to fill up (either with new to-dos or completed items) or if I just need the reset, I’ll tear the page off and start a new list. This process helps me to be present and stay focused on just what’s currently on my plate. The full size of a legal pad also gives me room to jot down extraneous thoughts that I want to remember or to import into my digital organization. I’ve also started writing my weekly and monthly goals at the bottom of the page in order to keep myself from forgetting about them until the last minute.

Physical notes are also a great way to set out ideas that you want to think about throughout a day. Whether that’s important reminders, mantras, or wisdom to ponder, having a physical piece of paper in your field of view helps you to return to those ideas more often. I also like brainstorming ideas on paper. The freshness of looking at a blank sheet helps me to get started, it’s easy to add quick sketches or doodles, and I’m less susceptible to distraction than I am when brainstorming on my computer. Once I accumulate a wad of brainstorming sheets, I’ll consolidate them and import anything I want to hang onto into my digital notes.

I still rely heavily on digital organization! My online calendar is essential, and I have hundreds of thoughts and ideas stored in my notes app. I keep a digital to-do list and project list in Notion, an uber-customizable document and organizational program. This to-do list holds future items, stuff on the backburner, and anything I want to get to eventually but isn’t urgent. In order to keep my physical to-do list focused, if an item on it lingers for too long and I get the sense that I’m not going to actually get to it for a while, I try to move it back into Notion. The projects list houses, well, projects: more involved, work-in-progress things I’m working on or plan to work on in the future. Notion databases work really well for these lists because they allow you to turn every item into its own page with it’s own sections, bullets, checkboxes, etc. I also use Notion for habit tracking and goal-setting, but that’s another blog post.

So far this balance of digital and physical systems has been working well for me, although it will certainly continue to evolve. Of course what works for you works for you, you may prefer all physical or all digital and that’s great! I hope you found something in this post interesting anyway.