I have always loved pen and paper. I was the kid that got excited about back-to-school shopping, pouring over the pens and journals for the year. And I am still the guy who ducks into a stationery store as I walk by. So it’s no wonder that the core of my productivity system is analog.
I love the inherent friction in pen and paper. It takes time. You can’t scribble and expect to read your scratches later. You can’t copy and paste, you have to write it again. It is permanent. You can’t delete, there is an indelible record to refer to. And it is personal. It resides in your hand, on your desk, it isn’t shared with coworkers or friends, it is for you alone.
The key is to use these frictions to your advantage. For me, that means using pen and paper to externalize personal tasks and projects that would otherwise weigh on my mind. Here is how I do it.
This is my productivity system in a nutshell. Some might recognize it as a weekly spread, which I find to be the right balance of detail and the big picture for a pen and paper system. I find a digital calendar is best for the monthly view, and I haven’t found a need to drill into a detailed daily view. (Though it is something I’m experimenting with.)
The first building block of any productivity system is a place for capture. Some call this an inbox and some call it a dump. Whatever you call it, you need a place to get everything out of your head and onto paper.
My capture area is on the left-hand side of the spread. Everything starts there. When I start a new week, I copy previous items over there. New items for work start at the top and flow down. New items for other areas of my life start at the bottom and flow up.
One nuance here is to frame items as the next physical and visible action. Rather than something generic like “prep for taxes” start with “download tax forms from broker and bank”. This approach front-loads the important process of breaking down the work. The result is future me is far less likely to get stuck or procrastinate because the next action is super clear and easy to pick up.
One element of Getting Things Done that has stuck with me is the project list. In my system, it sits at the bottom of the right-hand page of the spread, with separate areas for my work projects and other projects.
I reference this list more than any other area of my system. When I start a new week, I review these to ensure that they are still accurate and that they have a clear next step in my capture area. I also refer to them throughout the week when updating coworkers on what I’m focusing on and where I could use their help.
The final element of my system is the rest of the right-hand side dedicated to my daily most important tasks. Focusing on a manageable number of tasks for the day isn’t groundbreaking or even new, but it is a persistent recommendation for a reason.
Our culture lionizes overwork, and we see the result with worker burnout at an all-time high. Instead, we should work just enough. Identify your key items for the day, execute them, enjoy the accomplishment, and come back the next day to do it again. That virtuous cycle of prioritization, execution, and enjoyment is how one creates a sustainable, compounding impact over the long haul.
The step of enjoyment is critical, and it is also where paper and pen hold an advantage. In a digital tool, once you complete the task, it disappears into nothingness. There is no record of accomplishment to reflect upon. With paper and pen, all the items you completed remain right there, representing an honest day’s work. In that way, this section works both as a to-do list and a got-done list. I found this ability to track accomplishments so valuable that it is the primary reason I moved away from digital task management.
The final piece of my system is a very simple notation system. There are many options to draw inspiration from, including bullet journaling and dash/plus. My system takes a bit from both and consists of the following:
— item completed
X item canceled
> waiting for response (rare)
Keep It Simple
What I appreciate about this system is its simplicity. I don’t need the trappings of more complicated systems, such as context or project-specific lists or “waiting for” lists. Additionally, the limited space places natural constraints on all three sections. This prevents me from taking on more projects or MITs than I can handle and constrains the size of my task backlog. That in turn keeps me focused on only what is important or urgent and reduces the risk of overwhelm and burnout.
There isn’t one best productivity system to rule them all, but I would encourage you to give this a shot. If it feels too constrained and too simplistic, perhaps that is a sign that you are juggling too much and some constraints would be helpful. If it feels too complicated, I’d love to hear ways to further simplify the system without losing the core benefits.