Why the Old-School Paper To-Do List Is Superior as a Productivity Tool (& How to Make It Work for You in Under 5 Minutes)

Check Your List

This is a guest post by Karol K.  Karol is a blogger at Bidsketch.com, a company that delivers easy-to-use proposal software for writers and other creatives.

It’s kind of sad that there are so many great to-do list apps and tools out there, yet the traditional way of pen and paper still remains king in the 21st century.

And I’m not even trying to write this post in a provocative, “yeah take that” -kind of way. I really do feel that paper is better for to-do lists, and I’m going to prove it to you.

Plus, I’m going to give you the exact method that’s been ultra effective for me so far.

The Productivity Tools of Today

I’ve tested a lot of productivity / to-do list tools over the years, and probably all of the main stream ones. Asana, Trello, Remember The Milk (RTM), Any.do, Todoist, Wunderlist, Producteev, Google Tasks, I’ve tried them all at some point.  And I don’t mean just launching them once, playing around with the basic features, saying “meh” and going on with my life. I worked with each of them for at least a week (actually, that’s 3+ years with RTM, and 1+ year with Any.do).

For me, RTM was king, but then I watched a video by Neville from AppSumo about going back to the paper route. What he said seemed sensible, so I decided to give it a go because, heck, why not. After doing some quick tweaks to Neville’s original approach, I immediately knew that this was going to be THE way for me to handle to-do lists from that point forward.

Why Paper is Better Than Software

Don’t get me wrong, all of the productivity tools I mentioned are superb pieces of software, and they are great for many purposes. They’re just not great for everyone. That’s especially valid if you have your own way of working, your own way of describing tasks, your own way of keeping up with your things, and so on. Paper is extremely adaptive. And no matter what your style is, it will be able to handle it.

But there’s more to paper’s superiority:

1. It frees your screen. As someone working online (be it freelancing or any other kind of work), you are likely to have more than a handful of tools in your arsenal. How about Bidsketch (for creating and sending client proposals)? Basecamp (for effective project management)? FreshBooks (for accounting)? Oh yes, and let’s not forget Dropbox, and Skype, and Excel, and Word. Umm … what else is there? Anyway, you get the point. The thing is that no matter what additional to-do software you would use, it’s always going to occupy some real estate on your (already crowded) screen. This will cause the list to lose a lot of its visibility.

2. Scratching things off is cool! There’s just something about scratching things off your list that’s incredibly satisfying. I mean, you can almost feel the thing you’ve just accomplished when you’re holding a pen, just about to scratch it off the list.

3. Paper gives you a visible archive. With a software tool, once you’re done with a given task, you just click the “done” button or whatever, and it goes away forever. You don’t see it anymore. So, for example, even if you’ve finished 10 tasks so far, with 5 more to go, you only see those 5. With paper, you see all 15 – 10 of which scratched off. This is a huge motivator to keep going.

Convinced? Okay, onwards to the how-to!

The Setup You Need

There’s no other way to say this, you’ll only need:

  • some paper
  • a pen (plus another pen – a green color one if you’re fancy),
  • a binder to archive your lists (we won’t be throwing them away).

The Way It Works

Each list represents a single day. (See the sample page at the beginning of this post)

Taking it from the top:

  • Top left corner – the day of the week the list is for.
  • Top right corner – the day of the month.
  • Tasks:
    • All tasks have names / headlines.
    • You can describe each task in as much or as little detail as you wish. All that matters is for you to be able to identify the task right away.
    • Right next to a given task there’s a value in parentheses representing the estimated time you’ll spend handling the task. This isn’t that important for the execution of the task itself, but it is important when preparing your list for the day. For instance, it will prevent you from setting, say, 15 tasks that all total to 12 hours of work.

On the far right side of the list, there’s some place to put various priority values for your tasks. The most important task gets a “1.”

Working with the list is more than simple. Once you’re done handling a task, you just scratch it off the list. Preferably with a green pen (to make yourself feel extra special).

When you’re done with the day, you take your list and put it in the binder.

All those completed lists then become a great archive of your work, plus they can do wonders for your motivation if you’re having a bad day. If that happens, all you need to do is take a look at your binder and realize how much stuff you’re actually accomplishing every single day.
Example (my personal archive so far):

That’s basically it. Quite simple once you get going.

Which brings me nicely to your homework. I know that you might be feeling a bit hesitant to give this method a shot. I mean, isn’t technology supposed to be the solution to everything? Going back to paper just seems weird, right?

I know it does, so my advice is this: Don’t go head first into this. Just suspend your disbelief and try using paper to-do lists for a week. That’s all. See how it fits in your world.

So how’s it going to be, are you in?

Question: Would you consider switching to a paper to do list? Why or why not? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

80 thoughts on “Why the Old-School Paper To-Do List Is Superior as a Productivity Tool (& How to Make It Work for You in Under 5 Minutes)

  1. Karol, this is extremely refreshing to read! As a systems guy, I can get caught up in all of the tools and apps. But like yourself, with all of the software out there, nothing seems to beat the good old pen and paper. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks!

      Exactly my impression as well. But like I said, it’s kind of sad actually … all this technology and paper is still superior. Who would have guessed…

  2. I’m a fan of a purple highlighter myself! I like paper because I don’t have to start up an app, have internet access, or deal with a frustrating tiny keyboard. It is so quick and easy to jot things down and much more natural while conversing than trying to use a device. Plus, as you pointed out, paper is much more flexible – particularly for me when I am juggling freelance work, homeschooling, and volunteer tasks.

    While I keep a backup calendar on my phone, I prefer using a paper planning calendar which better suits my visual work style and lets me see the bigger picture of my week. My to dos get slotted on each day of a weekly planner so I can keep balance to my overall schedule and create space to get things done. There’s a lot of satisfaction in putting that dark purple highlighter mark through a completed task! I really like the addition of estimated time for the tasks and will try incorporating that. Great post!

    1. Thanks, Heather!

      My approach is very similar to yours. The only difference is that I still stick with digital calendars. Mainly because it’s a lot easier to edit them, and I don’t want to end up with a piece of paper that’s all messy when I move tasks/events around. And I also really appreciate the possibility to check my calendar on any device.

      On the other hand, my mom has a completely opposite approach. Whatever I love about digital calendars, she hates, and vice versa.

  3. I love paper to-do lists, though I’ve switched mostly to an electronic format. I use Toodledo because it’s free, syncs with mobile, and does what I need it to do. I use paper for certain situations–a long list of brief items, errands, and home-related tasks.

    1. Even though I’ve moved almost entirely to paper to-do lists right now, I still have to agree that digital lists are probably better if you tend to work in more than one place throughout the day. Taking a paper list with you everywhere wouldn’t be that handy.

  4. Love this. Most folks think I’m crazy for sticking to my paper lists. I agree completely that it has everything to do with freedom and motivation. My paper never loses power.

    1. … and it doesn’t ask you to share a task with your Twitter followers … or to subscribe to the paper’s email list. 🙂

  5. I have tried most of those apps but I always come back to paper and pencil ( yes, pencil). I do keep my calendar electronic. Good post.

  6. Thank you for posting!

    Paper lists have always worked for me. Coincidentally, my paper to-do lists look almost exactly like this, although I am partial to using triangles for each task. “Filling in my triangles”, as I call it, gives me satisfaction!

    Within the past year, though, I have moved from using it only, to now using software and electronic calendars to schedule the month, then moving to paper for daily tasks once I assign them to a specific date. It works for me, but I am thinking about giving total pen and paper the one week try!

    1. Right now my approach is almost exactly the same. I’m using digital stuff to plan out my month and week, and then switch to paper for daily tasks.

  7. I also use Toodledo. To enter tasks on the go, I tap Google Now, speak the to-do, and it’s on the list with a start and due date of today. On my home screen on both my phone and tablet, I have a widget which displays the first several tasks without having to open anything. Repeating tasks are writing one time. All of the supporting information needed when I want to do the task is in the note section. The whole thing is instantly searchable. All of the emails which are simply reminders of things to do are forwarded to the to-do list with the entire body of the email in the note section. No re-writing of lists. My calendar and to-list nhave been digital since 2001, and while I could go back to my Day-Timer and structure a good paper system, nothing compares to what I have now.

    1. I like it. I do mostly the same. Question: what widgets are you using? I also use Drafts to post to Toodledo.

      1. Phillip, my phone and tablet and Android, so when I downloaded the Toodledo app, on my phone, a widget was automatically inserted into the widgets section, so I simply drug it to my home screen. Since I can automatically see the fist several tasks, add a new task, or open to the Toodledo app all fro the widget, it eliminated the need to have the app itself on the home row and freed a spot for something else. Same thing on the tablet, only had to manually search for and install the Toodledo widget from the Google Play store. I use Google Now for on the fly input into Toodledo using the “note to self command.”

    2. Thanks for sharing, Frank! Your approach sounds like an advanced one. I mean, it’s not that complicated in itself, but as you said, you’ve basically spent 13 years perfecting it.

      The big advantage with paper is that you can get started right away, with no previous knowledge of apps, desktop widgets and so on.

      That being said, what you have set up is impressive.

      1. Karol, what I am doing isn’t something that has been perfected over 13 years. Little has changed for about the last 12 of those years. Really the only thing that has changes is the tools to do it with (Palm synced to Outlook, then BlackBerry saved to Outlook, and now Android synced with Toodledo. As far as getting started right away, I regularly teach people to do what I do, and they are up and going the same day.

      2. Karol, it’s not that it has been perfected over 13 years. In fact very little has changed in about the last 12 of those 13 years. It’s just that it has worked for that long and stood the test of time, The tools have changed: Palm syned to Outlook, then BlackBerry synced to Outlook, and now Android synced to Toodledo, but the methodology has remained the same. What I do is so simple I can (and do) take people with no previous use of a digital to-do list and get them up and running within an hour.

  8. For me it has to be digital, so that I can pull it up on the go from my phone, like at the grocery, in a conference,etc. A paper notebook just doesn’t do that.

  9. No need to switch for me! I still use the paper and pen way for all the reasons you mention. I also use a big white board in my home office – great feeling to erase a task! Nice post. Sharing.

  10. Completed tasks in GQueues are not only not deleted (they are archived), they also remain keyword searchable. If paper vibrated in my pocket to remind me about that task I wrote down last month, I might reconsider. Alas, it does not. GQueues is hands down, the best todo management tool available.

    1. I wouldn’t be too sure that this tool will be around for long. It looks a lot like Google for a company that’s “not affiliated with Google,” and Google generally doesn’t enjoy such things.

  11. I think maybe you don’t do enough of the housework haha. I use paper for tasks that genuinely will go away after you complete them. But RTM is ideal for all the tasks that will come back around the next day, and the next, and the next… I got a smartphone in order to put RTM on it in order to not have to keep writing the same set of chores over and over every day on a paper list.

    1. To be honest, I’m kind of an RTM fan too, but paper works just better for me personally. For example, one of the problems with RTM is that there’s no free and good mobile app. The free one only allows you to synchronize tasks every 24 hours if I remember correctly. Is this still the case?

  12. Thanks, great advice. Even if I haven’t used it yet, I loved the idea of the bulletjournal.com. Take a look at it

    1. That’s a nice concept, thanks for sharing. Are those blank sheets generated by some app or do you create them by hand as well?

      1. The post includes a link to a PDF template I made that can be printed, etc. On my tablet I use Penultimate, which has a weekly calendar template and syncs with Evernote for easy archiving and searching of written text.

  13. I’m working as a summer school assistant principal, and we all come from different school districts during the regular year. Electronic to dos wouldn’t work.

    It kills a few extra trees, but I use a Jr. Legal Pad and record action items, one page per task. I find that tossing or filing a small sheet of paper is more satisfying and less confusing than a page of tasks per day. Plus, I can leave sheets on my coworkers’ desks, one action item per page, and they are able to complete anything I delegate without too much follow-up.

    Thanks for reminding us of the value of paper!

  14. I agree it’s satisfying to put a line through completed tasks but what do I do with in completed tasks? Should I leave them on the page for that day or carry them forward to a new list?

    1. It’s basically up to you. I usually strike them through with some red pen and then move them to the next day (or some other day).

  15. I love the paper and pencil method. I think and plan much better on paper. For some reason I focus better and I LOVE to cross things off! Plus it increases my memory.

  16. Nice post! I never let go of the paper and pencil method. Making a daily list really does help manage tasks effectively, and crossing items off your own to-do list is incredibly self-satisfying! Also agree white boards work well too!

  17. I only do paper. I LOVE scratching off what I did and throwing the list away at the end of the day. I wouldn’t keep a binder- I have too many already. Thanks for the article!

  18. Regrettable that this seems like a revelation to some! Of course paper works – but in certain circumstances. If I need to, for instance, pick up milk on the way home or at work I need to call someone on a particular topic then paper works well. For simple tasks, fairly imminent, and those performed personally then paper works and works well. That assume it’s a journal/note book and not scraps of paper or post-it notes.

    I am not a fan of over or ranked prioritization. To me it’s urgent and important or not! I just exclamation mark an such tasks.

    I also schedule tasks as urgent/important or do now, today, this week, and later. This is somewhat GTD’ish (getting things done).

    But paper has its limits. For instance for repetitive tasks and especially those not imminent – “update monthly sales figures” or “annual furnace maintenance”. It also is poor at shared or collaborative tasks – Susan to “order extra printer paper” for month-end invoicing. Susan needs to be notified and Susan needs to update this task for change, completion and so on.

    Whatever system you use it takes a discipline – a key point of GTD. No use marking a task a high priority or tomorrow if one doesn’t keep the journal close at hand and review it periodically especially at the start and end of the day.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      Everything you say makes sense. But it still all depends on the way we like to handle things personally. For example, some people don’t like to write down one repetitive task every day and they prefer to have it handled through an app. But others, myself included, don’t mind that at all because when I’m writing the same task down for the 10th time it makes me evaluate if I really need to be doing it, and if I maybe could delegate it somehow.

      When it comes to working with a team of people though, I completely agree, paper is not perfect.

  19. I find that paper to do lists don’t really handle the longer term things, or things that that you are waiting for. For example – if you are waiting for someone to get back to you, it is nice to have a reminder to prompt them if it’s been too long. In addition, tasks that are due in the future, but perhaps don’t have a date need to be recorded somewhere. Bottom line is that you can end up doing a lot of rewriting. Personally I use workflowy because it is so flexible and unstructured. It is basically like a written to do list, with the advantage that you can edit and move stuff around. You can also create simple tags like @waiting that are great for following up.

    1. Paper has its flaws, that’s for sure. It’s not the perfect method to manage a team, or to handle long-term tasks. But for personal productivity – things that we have to do on our own today or tomorrow, I find it to be extremely effective.

      And like I said before, rewriting a task isn’t a bad thing because it forces you to re-evaluate if you really should be doing this thing all the time.

    2. At this case you’ll need to try a Filofax kind of organizer and post- its. You schedule future tasks on post-its which you stick on the date slots(you write in slots only your appointments, deadlines and time bend things, while you write tasks on post its and stick them on the slots ). If you have several post-its in a date slot then you do a paper to-do list.

  20. Hi Karol, I completely hear what you’re saying and I was a paper list fan for a long time until I discovered TeuxDeux.com. You get to cross off your list as you complete things just like you do on paper and it doesn’t go away so you can always look back in time and see what you did, when. The best part though is that any tasks not completed today get automatically moved to tomorrow for you so it makes for less re-writing than a paper list. You can also schedule future tasks and repeat tasks. I challenge you to give it a try!

  21. I’m going to give it a try! I like the point about ticking off what you’ve completed and still being able to see your productivity.

  22. Hi Karol, nice read!
    Paper is great but it is really difficult to maintain the ‘habit’ with paper.
    We tend to start enthusiastically with a crisp sheet but our good intentions fall off just in couple of days.
    We are a bunch of UX designers with same problem and we tried most of the software you mentioned.
    We made one for ourselves 🙂 Have tried to keep it extremely minimalist.
    It has the much needed reminders that paper lacked, plus we made two sections just to keep of procrastination.
    Would like it you try http://www.laterbox.co

  23. I am using proofhub for managing to-do list. Your guide is completely awesome and I will try it with my pen and paper.

  24. I use a black Moleskine pocket calendar in combination with my iPhone 6’s Calendars5 (which is the best calendar for Google integration a snap above Week Calendar). I usually copy what I have in the Google Calendar across to the Moleskine. I find it much easier to grab and easily view events in the paper format; whereas the digital equivalent is good for managing invites, viewing map locations, and reminders, all catered for by Calendars5

    Thomas, Senior Calendar Addict, MA

  25. This is a great post, paper isnt great for everything and for what it is great for it depends on the person….. This was an inspiring post for me, I actually like the Nevile method mixed with your tweaks. ( The paper with the tape actually excited me. i see that can be useful ) Rewriting is one of those things that work for me. since i have add to write it over reinforces it my mind and lots of other subtle benefits. I believe a good post if i time permit would be comparison of paper and electronic a list, then the user can choose what he would rather do electronically and what he rather would with paper. But I think using both are best for everyone… Again, for me Id aim to use my planner then end up watching facebook. I use workflowy too but nothing beats paper…cause with paper, i find i have my best ideas when im on the train using. Its too bad i didnt realize this years ago when i first started planning, as I swore electronic was the holy grail and paper was the dark side. but i was wrong. Tho i use evernote now which isnt too complicated. I will switch it to the systems described in this book. Thanks again.

  26. @MartinHughHarvey
    Love that you point out how if something is important, you put an exclamation point. That is what draws your eye to areas of focus. As creatures of our own individual nature, who better to know what YOU will focus on than YOU?

  27. You’ve convinced me. I’ll never forget the first time a colleague came up to me and said, “hey, let me show you how to get organized.” He handed me a notepad and a pen, then said, “write down all your tasks.” Then he said, “as you complete them, cross them out or check them off if you like.” I asked, “what do I do with all the incomplete tasks?” He said, “move them to tomorrow’s list.” That was over 15 years ago. For years, I filled up notebooks and felt on top of my game. Unfortunately, I eventually felt I could take advantage of technology to make it better. Instead, technology “disconnected” me from my tasks, so the list often fell to the way side.

    Now, I think it is time to get back to the paper. The only exception is the grocery list. I absolutely LOVE keeping my grocery list in a To-Do app. Before we go grocery shopping, we pull up the list of all the completed tasks, then we uncheck the items we need. It acts as a staple list of all the things we typically buy. Lowers our number of trips to the store and helps prevent over buying.

    Thanks for the article! I realize this is 5 years old, but it is still reaching folks!

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