Last year, I made a $15 purchase that changed my desk forever.
Like most freelance writers, I jot down a lot of notes. That used to mean keeping office supplies around in any form I could find them: notebooks, stick-it notes, loose-leaf paper, the back of my hand.
But in the era of Marie Kondo and the decluttered life, the system seemed wasteful. Notes were difficult to find. I would begin one notebook only to start another one later. Soon, the pile of paper on my desk become one more chore I didn’t need.
That changed overnight when I succumbed to a buyer’s impulse and bought an eWriter. Mine is a Boogie Board specifically - but any eWriter will do.
Overnight, the clutter vanished. Not only could I write notes to my heart’s content, but the ability to swipe my notes away at a moment’s notice changed the way I approached my day.
Why You Need to “Clean the Slate” Every Day
My favorite feature of the eWriter is the single button at the top. Press it and everything wipes away. Your entire day’s notes will vanish as if they were never there at all.
As a freelancer, sometimes my work life blurs into the off-hours. It’s nice to have something tangible I can press to clean the slate and declare that I am, indeed, done for the day.
I’m not the only one who values this habit. The Duke of Wellington - the one famous for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo - was notorious for finishing as much as he could in a single day. He left himself no wiggle room for error. “My rule always was to do the business of the day in the day,” he wrote in 1835. He was on to something.
It may be a left-brained solution to right-brained problems, but the eWriter is especially suited to give you the freedom to doodle, but with the discipline of an off switch. If you struggle to “clock out” at the end of a day of creating, consider what a day-clearing button might do for your sanity. By all means, plan your day and carpe diem to your heart’s content - but when it comes time to shut it off, shut it off.
When Freehand is Better than Typing
Maybe the eWriter is the luddite’s solution. Isn’t it better to use Google Docs or a notes app? Use them and you can save to the cloud. You can copy and paste. You can highlight. You can bold, underline, run your notes through apps, share with colleagues, save to Evernote - the list goes on and on.
So why bother with an eWriter? Why not type everything on the computer and reserve the desk space? The reasons are myriad:
Tangible work requires increased brain activity. In 2012, a study at Indiana University presented a letter to children who hadn’t yet learned how to read. The researchers asked each child to reproduce it using one of three strategies, and then studied brain activity resulting from each approach. They asked some children to trace it with a dotted outline, others to draw it on a blank sheet, and a third group to type the letter up on a computer.
All three groups completed the same goal: they copied the letter. But when researchers looked at the brain scans, they found that the children who recreated the letter freehand had increased activity in three distinct areas of the brain.
According to the New York Times, the children who either typed or traced the letter showed “no such effect.”
That led researchers to an interesting conclusion: the messiest reproductions of the letter turned out to be the best exercise for the children’s minds.
Writing summaries helps boost memory. A 2014 report found that the extra mental work required in digesting and summarizing notes in pencil was more effective for learning and memory than typing out quotes verbatim.
The reason, in all likelihood, is that forcing yourself to summarize your own thoughts requires extra mental investment. You end up having to teach yourself the content of the notes as you make them digestible - an essential step you can skip when typing away like a court stenographer.
Creating an extra step forces you into reflection. Even Ernest Hemingway was a fan of the “extra step” of tactile writing. According to some sources, he preferred pencil for creative writing, later transferring his words to typewriter. The effect created an unofficial second draft even before he did the serious work of editing.
As the author once told Esquire, using a pencil gives the writer a stronger sense of what they’ve written - as well as another “pass” at feeling out the work when moving it from freehand to type.
Improve Your Productivity with a Pen and a Pad
While the most immediate impact of my eWriter was the immediate and total vanishing of all paper-related desk clutter, my favorite benefits are less tangible. Here are a few takeaways you can use to improve your desk life:
When you find yourself untying a mental knot, write the problem down. If the mere act of writing is good enough to boost brain activity in children or increase recall for college students, it’s good enough to help you clarify your thoughts. You’ll often find that you think of the first few answers to a question you’re writing before you get to the question mark.
Write down what you want to achieve for the day. Creativity doesn’t always spring from discipline, but you won’t create anything if you never take the time to bother. My most frequent use of the eWriter is to plan out my day with individual milestones, crossing them off as they’re completed.
Do more freehand writing for first drafts. It seems like extra work, but transferring freehand to a word processor is multi-tasking. You get to read your work in a new light while simultaneously editing.
Shut it off. When you’ve crossed every item off your list, press the button at the top and watch your work day end. The only way this part would be more satisfying is if they installed an Etch-a-Sketch shake-to-erase feature.
You can realize each of these benefits with an old-fashioned pencil and piece of paper, true. But with an eWriter, you’ll never have to bother. Try it out yourself and see if your life - or at least your desk - doesn’t change.
Dan Kenitz is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. He’s previously written for Grasshopper and GoToMeeting. You can follow him on Twitter.