I have a confession to make: while I know that it is good for me to be present in the moment right here and now — that I am likely to enjoy the writing process more, taste my food better and feel the sun on my face — I know all this — yet, I often find it quite difficult to do. It is so much easier to be worrying about my insurance bill that I forgot to pay, as I gulp down this cup of coffee while looking at my phone trying to check if this person responded to that urgent e-mail that I sent her seven, almost eight, minutes ago, and then I notice that there is a new voice mail and I should probably listen to it, even though 95% of the people who call me are either trying to sell me insurance for the car I don't have or convince me to switch to a different utility company, however, this voice mail might just be very important, and I listen to it and it's about car insurance so I check my e-mail again, and the day goes by and before heading home I realize that I didn't actually write the article which I sat down to write this morning. Worse yet, I can't even recall what I actually did instead. All I know is that I felt quite busy and a bit stressed throughout the day. I make a promise to myself: Tomorrow I will try to be more present.

One thing I have noticed in my work life over the past two years is that the likelihood of the above outlined scenario varies greatly with my choice of tools for the day. Using my laptop and phone, this is what happens. If instead I pick up a notebook and pen, and turn off my phone, it never does.

Now, it is crucially important for me to stress the point that this does not mean that I think laptops and phones are bad or evil and my project is not about nostalgic longing for a former time. Let's be real: our phones and laptops are immensely powerful tools. Massively efficient. On the days where I work on my laptop I can get 10x as many things done. I can type faster 2-3x faster than when I write by hand. I can access information 10-1000x times faster than going to a library and looking it up in a book. And things like online banking, ordering food and chatting with friends and family around the world, I simply can't do with just a notebook.

Clearly, the notebook and pen are not "better". But what I find is that they are much more conducive to remaining present, and at least for me, this means that I inevitably enjoy my work more. With the laptop, I get a lot done, but I don't enjoy it very much, and I get this feeling of my mind shattering like glass, into tiny little pieces, and by the end of the day I am completely fragmented and unfocused.

What matters to me is that we have a choice. We can choose the speed and incredible efficiency of digital connected technology and we can choose the slow but present notebook. We can choose in a big way, in terms of our choice of career, between careers that allow for more or less screen time. But we can also choose in a small way for each task and project we do.

In my work as an executive coach I have had the opportunity to support a number of amazing leaders, CEOs and entrepreneurs. One thing they have in common is that they understand this choice and they know how to switch between tools as needed. For visioning, strategic planning and other deep thinking they go for the notebook. For execution and building and communicating they grab the laptop. The notebook helps them be pro-active and leading. The laptop helps them be efficient managers.

The story could end here: analog vs. digital. Presence vs. efficiency. Either or. But it doesn't. Last year FiftyThree (makers of the multiple award winning Paper-app for iPad) invited me to come and play with them and their software. This raised a whole new question for me: is there perhaps a middle ground? Some tool that fits in the place between the notebook and laptop? A tool that can do both?

In the past seven months I have been doing experiments with the Paper-app and what I have found is that with a bit of training and practice, it can actually be function as this hybrid that can do both efficiency and presence. On the one hand it works like a notebook: I can sit down and focus — make a strategic plan or just write a nice handwritten letter to someone I recently met. When I'm done I can switch to efficiency mode and instantly share the plan with the rest of the team on Dropbox and send the handwritten note in an e-mail (try it some day – you get the most awesome responses when you send someone a genuine handwritten note). At the end of the day I can go back through the pages I have made during the day which gives me a good overview of what I have accomplished during the day and what I want to make a priority for tomorrow.

Further resources:


Mathias Vestergaard is an executive coach and -facilitator, and the author of Think Clearly — With Paper for iPad. He loves notebooks, bakes bread and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son. 

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