Digital vs. Analog: Two Generations’ Different Styles of Work

Jun 04, 2021

Even as online information and digital applications proliferate, the paperless office remains a fairy tale. Paper-based tools and physical things are alive and well – they may even be making a comeback, as chronicled by David Sax in The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. Choosing tools for individual workflow and productivity is deeply personal, but could it be generational? The two of us (Lauren, a millennial, and Jim, a Gen Xer) discuss how we work and debate the merits and implications of the digital and analog alternatives.

Capturing Information

Lauren LearLauren: How I capture information varies from the old-fashioned pen and paper to newer technologies, such as tablets and digital notebooks. The goal is always the same: retain new information.

I believe capturing information is more effectively done with pen and paper. Most people can digitally find and type information so quickly that there isn’t enough time for their minds to process the data. When I want to retain information, I write the words on paper. While this is more time-consuming, it gives me the opportunity to interpret the information in a way that makes sense to me. When I’m in professional settings, such as meetings or interviews, it is much more interpersonal to leave my laptop closed and use my notebook. Using technology presents a disengaged perception because there are endless distractions on digital platforms.

That being said, I do take notes electronically whenever appropriate. Digital notes are easier to refer back to and build upon. There is much more flexibility in organizing a virtual notebook. One area I continue to struggle with is merging digital and handwritten notes. It’s an ongoing challenge that I’m always working to improve.

Jim CarusoJim: I was surprised when a baby boomer colleague called me “old school” for using a notebook. Author David Sax and others have noted the relatively recent rise in the use of Moleskine journals – surely that trend would not be happening without millennials leading the way. Despite our generational differences, Lauren and I are in agreement. Published studies indicate writing (and reading) on paper enhances retention and learning. We may not realize it, but just navigating digital applications sidetracks thought processes; the simplicity of pen and paper does not. Capturing words, thoughts, and ideas in a physical medium such as a notebook brings a feeling of control and permanence that cannot be replicated by placing information into the digital ether. We all want to be productive and efficient, but we are also human beings that experience the world physically. What’s wrong with enjoying, for its own sake, the tactile experience of using a smooth-writing pen on quality paper in a nice notebook?

Task Lists

Jim: I love seeing someone on my team take copious notes, either on a computer or paper. I do worry, though, that action items, ideas, and required follow-ups will remain buried in those notes without organization. There are many personal productivity systems out there (digital and analog), and they all involve one simple thing: the ubiquitous to-do list. But one list containing every task is unmanageable (and frightening).

I use David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) system. It advocates keeping several lists: an inventory of all projects and lists of tasks batched by “context,” which can be defined as a location, the “mode” of working, or the tools and materials you need. Particularly useful is the “waiting list” that tracks things owed by others.

I have switched back and forth between digital and analog versions of GTD. After years of using Microsoft Outlook Tasks, I tried a manual system. That was a short-lived experiment due to inflexibility and an inability to vary how I sorted the tasks. I am back to digital. Rather than some fancy app, I use a simple Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, where I keep different lists on separate tabs, and sort or filter tasks as desired. This digital solution is dynamic, easy to update, and accessible anywhere via Dropbox. A downside is that it has become too easy to track every little task, expanding each list to an overwhelming size. I now extract priority items and make a separate to-do list, on paper, for the day or week. This handwritten process helps me think through priorities, and it is satisfying to cross things out when they are done.

Lauren: I also tried using a manual system for a short period of time, but quickly reverted back to an entirely virtual task list. My to-do lists are always changing and growing. I need flexibility to reprioritize tasks as each day evolves. I was surprised to learn Jim uses Excel. As much as I love Excel, I’ve noticed a trend in people referring to it as the “dinosaur” of digital tools.

I discovered Microsoft OneNote months ago, and can no longer envision my life without it. I track all my nonrecurring, personal, and project tasks within OneNote. I have multiple lists throughout my virtual notebook, but they can all be filtered in one place. In my current role in RSM’s finance and accounting outsourcing practice, I use a cloud-based application called BlackLine to manage my recurring task list associated with each of my client engagements. This to-do list can be shared with the whole engagement team, but is specifically assigned to one member. This helps to manage the finance function and month-end close process for our clients. By using this tool, we’re connected as a team and can ensure those infrequent annual or quarterly client tasks don’t get forgotten. Can you believe that by using these two applications I haven’t used a sticky note in months?

Planning and Brainstorming

Lauren: Planning is often a collaborative effort, whether it’s for a group project in an academic setting or for a client engagement. For this reason, I prefer to take notes on a laptop during planning sessions. While working in a group setting, there tends to be a lot of ideas that need to get captured quickly and without regard to organization. In addition to note-taking, it’s easy to bring others into the meeting through video conferencing or Webex, and it’s a bonus that we have the ability to record the meeting and refer back to it later. In the end, the team can share and review all the different ideas to further organize, build upon them, or just delete.

There are a few scenarios where I find that planning using a digital strategy isn’t best. When I am trying to understand workflows, whiteboard sessions of manually mapping out a process are very productive. Other than running out of room on the board or on paper, there are no limitations on how to structure these kinds of diagrams. However, I almost always take a picture of the whiteboard before erasing it so it is stored digitally.

Jim: It depends on what mode of planning I am in. Whiteboards, or even old-fashioned flip charts, are ideal for group brainstorming. If using digital tools, everyone should look at the same screen to stay together and avoid going down individual digital rabbit holes. When I am doing my own brainstorming, I like to be unencumbered by digital tools. Pen and paper allow for free thinking and mind-mapping. Digital applications by their nature impose more linear thinking, and just navigating the application disrupts my train of thought. When it’s time to develop a formal, detailed project plan, then I shift to digital tools.

Scheduling/Calendar

Jim: I moved to digital scheduling years ago, and never looked back. The Microsoft Outlook calendar does everything I need, and it synchronizes well with mobile devices. I like the convenience of being able to look at my iPhone to see where I am supposed to be next. An appointment book is too unwieldy to accommodate shifting schedules, and it cannot be shared like online calendars. I use my digital calendar only for appointments, though; I do not enter specific tasks within it. I will block out periods to protect time for work and to keep others from imposing meetings onto my schedule. One thing I have recently experimented with – on paper – is setting up “work blocks” on a clean page of my notebook every day. I look at my digital calendar, determine how much “white space” I have between meetings and calls to get things done, and write the tasks I plan to focus on within those blocks. This becomes the day’s to-do list. This practice helps me think about the day ahead, be more realistic about what I can accomplish, and optimize the use of smaller blocks of time between meetings.

Lauren: I would like to meet someone who doesn’t use a virtual calendar to manage their schedule and hear their perspective on why. I’ve bought all the fancy life planners and organizers, but after a week I always revert back to Outlook. Aside from the creepy fact that my iPhone knows where I live, where I parked my car, and where I’m going based on my routines, it integrates with Outlook and alerts me when I need to leave for an off-site meeting. I can’t rely on these notifications alone, but it is a convenient feature and takes into consideration traffic and other factors I may not always be thinking about. I agree that it is important to not let your calendar become your to-do list, but it can be used to block out periods of time. I often block out two hours on Monday mornings for my weekly planning.

Reading, Reviewing, and Editing

Jim: Many of us spend most of our days reading on screens, but as human beings who experience the world through all five senses, there is a certain pleasure in physically handling a report, magazine, or book. You can actually finish a magazine, whereas you could never finish a website with its infinite links. Printed documents are contained and manageable, whereas endless digital information in a dozen open windows on two computer monitors can create stressful information overload. Some documents or spreadsheets are too long to comfortably read on a screen. As noted above, many of us absorb and retain information better on paper. Annotating documents facilitates thought. When proofreading financial information, I must have a hard copy that I can tick-and-tie, and do calculations in the margins. I do prefer to review and edit most written documents digitally using Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature (although having the original author process a reviewer’s manual edits can be a valuable learning experience), and I admit that certain documents are too long to justify printing. But a paperless office is a place I wouldn’t want to work.

As for reading in general, I am concerned that many people no longer read books (in any form). Deep reading and linear thinking fostered by books has given way to shallow, fragmented consumption of information from websites, blogs, and social media. Regardless of the format, we need to read more books. There was a time I read books only on a Kindle. Now, I still use it for certain business books so that I can highlight and save large blocks of text for later reference, but my default preference has gone back to the physical book for many of the reasons discussed above.

Lauren: My local office recently adopted RSM’s “clean office environment” policy. It encourages everyone to be as green and paperless as possible. Like Jim, I preferred to make notes in the margins of hard-copy documents. The downside of this is the clutter that builds up unless I take the time to scan and file the documents digitally. More recently, I am starting to embed comments in my documents. Once the review comment is addressed, it can be marked as completed, but I can still refer back to it if needed. With less paper, I feel more organized and more productive in a decluttered space.

Having an endless amount of content available to me online can be convenient at times, but more often than not I prefer a “real” book or magazine. I am able to focus better when I’m holding a book and, similar to note-taking, I retain the information better in this format. The screen brightness alone can be a distraction while reading digitally. I am on my computer, tablet, and iPhone for 10-plus hours during the day, so being able to use my physical senses is a great way for me to decompress and relax.

Organization

Lauren: Organizing and storing information is best done digitally, although it takes a significant amount of effort and consistency to actually practice this. I mentioned earlier that note-taking is most effective with a pen and paper, but then what do you do with that paper? This is something I struggle with: the paper usually just piles up on my desk until I get around to filing it every few weeks … OK, months.

There have been multiple studies that prove clutter, including piles of paper, has a negative impact on productivity. I make a best effort to scan hard copies of favorite magazine articles or notes to a digital version. Digital information is easily accessible and portable. It can also be easily shared. Notice a trend?

Everyone has their own system for capturing, organizing, and storing information. My system may work really well for me but may be completely ineffective for someone else. The key to a process is to be inquisitive and innovative. Ask your colleagues how they manage their workload and store information. If the person is doing similar types of work, there’s a good chance you can leverage or incorporate their system into yours.
If you’re like me, you receive an overwhelming amount of information on a daily basis. If you don’t have a system, you will easily become disorganized.

Jim: I struggle with this as well. I agree with the downside of clutter, but physically organizing hard-copy documents helps me feel mentally organized. When I print out a completed report and insert it into a binder, I get a satisfying feeling of finality and structure that I don’t feel when it exists only in digital form. For important things, I like the redundancy of paper in addition to the digital form. Now, don’t expect to find my office drawers full of hanging folders or my shelves full of binders. I do try to minimize paper files, being relatively mobile and often working remotely. I just like to keep my most important documents and reference materials – the current year’s budget, the most recent financial statements, active project plans, etc. – in a binder where they are at my fingertips. As for handwritten notes, actionable items should be extracted and organized as discussed above. If notes are informational and need to be saved for future reference, I take a picture of the page and save the image. I keep my notebooks – I have the romantic notion that one day I will need them for a book or a memoir – but I think of them only as capture tools, not permanent files.

Communication

Jim: I think this is the area with the sharpest generational contrast. At the risk of sounding old, I have to say it: millennials generally rely too much on digital communication. Email is a productivity tool that I use plenty, but we’ve all seen endless email exchanges that could have been easily resolved by a phone call or a walk down the hall. Texting is even worse in a business context: it demands an immediate response, and its brevity is making spelling and grammar a lost art. I don’t particularly enjoy talking on the phone, and we can all appreciate the farcical entertainment of the conference call, but they are still better for building relationships and avoiding misunderstandings (not to mention a way to make productive use of drivetime). Still, nothing beats face-to-face interaction for building relationships. Sadly, this seems to be falling by the wayside. It is tough to find satisfaction in work interactions limited to disembodied voices and unknown email authors. We all know the comfort of “putting a face to a name”; meeting a person even once enhances all future phone, text, and email collaboration. Missing from virtual interaction are body language and nonverbal cues. A business associate once suggested that the rise of emojis is an acknowledgement of this void.

Lauren: I guess I am a true millennial because I advocate that it is actually acceptable to text coworkers. As a caveat, I do believe it depends heavily on your relationships and comfort levels with your colleagues. On the other side, I prefer not to text clients. To Jim’s point, this mode demands an immediate response and can be unprofessional. Whenever I do text, using emojis is my way of softening my message or portraying my physical reaction.

I am guilty of going back and forth over email or instant message for 20-minutes instead of just walking down the hall to talk to a colleague face-to-face. It’s “easier” to multitask and try to combine completing tasks, answering questions, and solving problems into that same 20 minute window, but it’s not effective or comfortable. Not to mention, these methods could be frustrating or stressful to the person on the other side of the exchange. I often work with colleagues and clients in different places, so I try not to forget to use video conferencing as much as possible. A brief five-minute phone, in-person, or live conversation can establish trust and strengthen a relationship. These benefits are rarely acquired through digital communication alone.

Conclusion

In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers writes, “The digital information that weighs on us today exists in a nonphysical medium, and this is part of the problem … Where is all that data, exactly? It’s everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We’re physical creatures who perceive and know the world through our bodies, yet we know and spend much of our time in a universe of disembodied information.”

The digital world isn’t going away, but neither is pen and paper. An integrated approach that leverages the best of both worlds is the only reasonable solution.


James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA, is chief financial officer for Simplura Health Group in Valley Stream, N.Y., and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at jcaruso@simplura.com or on Twitter @jamesjcaruso.

Lauren M. Lear, CPA, is supervisor, finance and accounting outsourcing, for RSM US LLP in Plymouth Meeting and a member of the
Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at lauren.lear@rsmus.com.
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