Why I Stick to Pen and Paper for Goals and Tasks

Technology is great…but I sure do like pen and paper – as I mentioned to one of our readers who asked me what I use to keep track of things.  For one thing, I remember things better when I write them down by hand; it’s as if my hand keeps memories of each of its motions and my mind is better able to recall these motions later as the words sink deeper in my brain.  I must think of each item I write down before setting my pen to paper and so I make better decisions using this increasingly old-fashioned way.  On a computer screen everything can be erased, so my brain doesn’t retain the words the same way – it’s all temporary and it all sits in shallower spots in my mind.

And so it is that I write down my tasks and to-do items on my small notebook, which I have with me at all times in addition to my light weight paper organizer.  My boyfriend, who does graphic design for all things digital, gave me his old iPhone when he got a new one and he showed me the world of apps for everything productivity: timers, to do lists, calendars and a variety of other apps I could use to track, measure and schedule my time.  At first I used the phone to play Angry Birds (and sometimes as an mp3 player), but eventually I gave in to my boyfriend’s pleas to take advantage of the features of the wonderful invention that would make my life so much easier – and my purse so much lighter.  I put aside my flip phone, my boxy mp3 player and my paper aids, and switched to the iPhone.

I brought back the small notebook and pen after dealing with the tiny letter buttons involved with using the Notes app (and for any typing in the iPhone), which did come in handy when I ran out of ink I must confess.  The notifications and reminders don’t always work so instead of missing more appointments I brought back my 2-buck paper organizer.  I lost contacts in the process of syncing, which for me overall a nightmare, and using all these time-enhacing features made the phone run out of battery faster than an obese asthmatic runs out of air up 8 flights of stairs.  So I stuck to paper and pen.

At some point I tried Gmail Tasks, which I thought was the coolest task “thingy” ever!  I could add emails to my task list, which really uncluttered my inbox but to get to my task list I had to go to Gmail and – hey, look!  My friends sent me a couple of messages, let me just read a little.  Two hours later my tasks were still unfinished and I was on Gtalk discussing authentic French croissants.  If I were out eating said croissants I had no access to my tasks either since they were online and so quickly I was off Gmail tasks and back to paper and pen.

But for my long term goals I surely wanted something more high-tech and precise.  I started with 43things.com, where I can write the things I want to do and make entries as to how I’m accomplishing them.  I can also see how other people who are or have done the same things have done them, which is pretty cool, though it becomes time consuming.  Sharing my goals with others made me feel a little more responsible for accomplishing them but it just wasn’t as organized as my sheet of paper behind my door.  I needed some charts, some lines criss-crossing my page or something and so I tried a mind-map.  The tutorial made the mind-map look awesome and I was good for several days at growing my map, putting together lines, drawings, arrows and all sorts of things.  But just to get to my map I had to turn on my computer and sometimes my thoughts would have passed by the time I was ready to start mapping so I went back to a sheet of paper behind my door.  It’s always there when I want to write something down or just have a look at how things are going with my plans.

Timing my tasks and activities is something I have no problem doing electronically since I accomplish many of my tasks – like writing – on the computer.  I tried a few different software till I settled on Klok, a free program by Rob McKeown from mcgraphix.  There are a few things that could be improved but overall it does what I need it to do and that’s fine.  Sometimes I forget Klok though but I’m getting much better at remembering both to open it and to start its timer since I started adding these tasks to the list in my small notebook.

Please comment to let us know what you use for keeping track of your long and short term goals as well as your daily tasks!

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  1. Oscar Del Ben on the 25th August

    I think that what you have is an excellent approach. Here’s what I do: I write my monthly and yearly goals on paper, I have a notebook for that. Then I use a software called things for setting up all the steps that I have to twke to achieve my goals. I also use this software for keeping track of recurring tasks like sending out invoices at the end of the month. Every day when I wake up I choose the tasks that I want to accomplish during the day and I write them on a list (on paper this time). I then assign a priority but that’s another story.

    • Ana da Silva on the 26th August

      That’s pretty cool! I’ve heard of Things and I’ll have to check it out.

  2. rps on the 25th August

    if one starts spending more time fiddling with list-tech, than accomplishing things, then something is certainly off. which, is why i created my own to-do app for the iphone (which, ironically… might have an ad showing above – which is how i found your article). i think one of its best features is – *no* sync!

    everyone has their own needs. but, i think most people don’t need to to be syncing stuff across various platforms or tracking systems. like your pen and paper, just one place that is always with you is enough. the top advantage of writing tasks down is knowing that you won’t forget them.

    • Ana da Silva on the 27th August

      The whole syncing thing’s just driving me mad with the iPhone and yes, in the end I end spending more time accessing some tech solution than actually writing down what I need to.

      Good luck with your app!

  3. I agree, I always take a pen and notepad with me to meetings or have it on my desk for notes and sketches and so on… Nothing is quicker or more accessible than a pen and paper 😉

  4. Mahesh on the 25th August

    Yeah .. notebooks are awesome , specially while brainstorming and getting into peak passionate state and writing , writing .. its like heart pouring its love on the paper … 🙂

    And I love Tony Robbin’s RPM software ,

    its like carrying WHOLE LIFE with us ..
    Professional and Personal both ..

    I think you should try it .. it comes with his series of Time of your life 🙂

  5. Tim on the 25th August

    My memory is so poor that if I don’t write down something I need to do immediately, I could forget about it within a few seconds. However, I’ve noticed that I don’t keep any analog paper near my desk.

    I have a notepad shortcut on my quick-launch bar (next to the start button), and I have somehow trained myself to automatically click it whenever I pick up the phone — the equivalent of getting a pen and paper ready. I don’t bother saving what I type as a text file – I take care of it then and there or add it to my task list.

    I am an avid user of Google Tasks. I love the simplicity of it (though it could use a bit more features, like email reminders). Although, I have *never* used it within Gmail. Frankly, it’s too small! Not to mention, as you said, the possibility for distraction.

    There are several other ways to view Google Tasks that I think you may be interested in:

    – The Plain Task list, which can be added to the FireFox sidebar, or made into an application shortcut that you can keep on your desktop

    – The full-screen Task list, which has the lists on the side and easy-to-access icons (this is the one I use)

    – Android and iPhone optimized views

    – Have tasks show up on your Google Calendar

    – The tasks iGoogle Widget

    – The adobe air tasks widget, which lets you have them on your desktop

    Again, I use the canvas/full-screen view myself, and I find it to be incredibly productive. Maybe these URLs can help you out too 🙂

    • Deb on the 28th August

      Thank you for the Canvas full-screen link Tim. I use Google Tasks to jot down my ideas, plans, client dealing details pretty much everything. I used to have a moleskin notebook but other people often try to peek in.

    • Ana da Silva on the 9th September

      Thanks Tim!

      I didn’t know Tasks was available outside Gmail. That’s good news.

      By the way, you’re not the only one with a terrible memory. I’m working on it but mostly I’m just like you and I forget things within seconds often!

  6. Koren Berman on the 25th August

    I haven’t tried most of the apps you mentioned, except 43things, which was really nice and had the community feel to it; but for me at least I felt like my mundane tasks (go shopping, change sheets…) were too frivolous to be listed under “what will you do if you had one more minute to live?”.

    I agree, a pen and sheet of paper are best. Inspiration always kicks in when I’m trying to sleep, so having a post it on a drawer is more viable than having to open up the computer, launch the app, wait for it to load etc. I’ve never used any notification services because I never bothered to check them or turn them on in the first place. I haven’t seen anything as instant and accessible as pen and paper.

  7. June on the 25th August

    Hi, I like your post and enjoy reading them. After much trial and error, you realise that you will always get back to pen and paper.

    I do prefer the pen and paper too. however, for me, I tend to lost things somehow and then they get lost forever. Perhaps you can advise me on how I can try to keep them within sight!

  8. Brian Landi on the 25th August

    Thanks for your post! More and more I am agreeing with you. For so long I thought that I HAD to use one of the new and neat computer based tasks systems. I have tried Outlook, TeauxDeaux, the Behance Network, various Iphone Apps and Google Tasks. Ultimately, they are a little too nebulous to be effective for me. When I have my red moleskine pocket sized notebook either in my pocket or staring at me from my desk the things I have to do become all the more tangible.

    Thanks again!

  9. robotplague on the 25th August

    I actually really prefer to do my scheduling with pen and paper. If it’s sitting on a server somewhere I tend to “forget”. But if it’s sitting physically on a pad of paper in my bag or pocket I always am aware of it. If that makes sense…

    Scribbling out a goal just feels right.

  10. Jessica Bosari on the 25th August

    I’m so with you. I had been resisting the old pen and pad for some time, a symbol of my office work days and the never ending list of things to do that vexed me so.

    I have tracking spreadsheets, Gmail tasks, pop up reminders, alarms on my phone and all sorts of gadgets. Problem is, I’m usually in the middle of something, or viewing another page on the PC. When I started to feel like my domination over the workflow was slipping away, I pulled out my pen and pad and dusted them off.

    I was surprisingly comforted by the familiar smooth flow of ink from the pen as I jotted down a few priority items. Without these items pressing on my psyche, I could work more efficiently. In the following weeks, I found myself leaning on the pad more and more, remembering why these simple instruments were so trusty in the past.

    Now all of my tasks are on that pad, along with the spreadsheet to check it against to be sure I don’t miss any deadlines. When break time approaches, I pick out a task that can be accomplished in the time I have. Then I can tackle the bigger priority items when I return refreshed. Anything left on the pad at the end of the day goes to the top of the pad the next day.

    I’m glad to have an excuse to shop for cute notebooks again. I missed that!
    ; o)

    • Ana da Silva on the 9th September

      I just can’t do electronic reminder etc. They used to come at such inconvenient times at work, including times I wasn’t around to see them! But opening my notebook I could see everything I needed.

      And yes, cute notebooks are great!

  11. Lauren on the 25th August

    I’m the same way, and people think I’m nuts. Somehow I’m way more organized and productive with a pile of loose, scribbled on papers (most say the same things – rote memory helps me remember important things). If I try and get e-organized I just end up getting distracted. Today alone I lost myself on Google Earth.

  12. Jinto Jolly James on the 26th August

    I am also not good with numbers and figure, but reasonably good with patterns and relations that help me organize and handle the deluge of data.. Tried many widgets in PC, apps in mobile, but I rely more with the pen and paper approach. I do have a notice board kind of thing in my room, which I made out of simple crafts tools and stuffs, above my table, on which I could either use paper notes fixed using push pins or sticky labels. It has 3 broad sections “Now”, “Later” , “Some day” — for immediate, recent and longterm.

    When I go away, I occasionally put an abbreviation of the note titles in my phone reminder section. Since I wrote the notes earlier and made the abbreviations myself, I do remember it very well even if the timer set in the mobile haven’t alerted me if the battery went low or anything worse.

    Also, ‘ 1 done, 3 more to go’ kind of thought which one have when we strike out or remove an entry from the notice board is much more lively, than pushing few buttons to delete a note electronically.

  13. elliott on the 26th August

    to-do lists and related programs are always a gamble. i am using producteev at the moment but what i really like about it is: it’s not inside my email, the interface is good, and it has really good reminders.

    paper is always available but where are those notes when you’re home or at work?

    • Ana da Silva on the 9th September

      Ah, that’s the brilliance of carrying a small notebook with you!


    • Ana da Silva on the 11th September

      A-ha! That’s why I carry my small notebook around. It’s always there, even when the electricity goes out 😉

  14. Jens P. Berget on the 26th August

    After reading the e-book, the “todoodlist: technology is great. pencils are better.” I stopped using all the different apps on my iPhone and the software on my Mac for things related to notes and tasks.

    I keep a notebook, a big one, for my major thoughts and notes. And I use a small one for adding new thoughts, notes, and tasks. I try to carry the small one with me at all times. I add what I write in the small one to the big one once I have the time.

    It works for me 🙂

  15. Jared on the 27th August

    Personally, I use a little of both.

    I usually have about 30 tasks on my task list, and it never really runs low. If I use just pen and paper, my task list either gets cluttered, or I have to rewrite everything by hand every day.

    Instead, I keep three papers on my desk. One is for tasks as people come in my office and need something. The other is notes for when I talk to customers or I am researching something. At the end of each day, I punch in my written tasks into Toodledo (online), and check off the tasks I finished that day. Then I print off my task list, write numbers to each task I want to complete in what order, and leave that on my desk. As I finish tasks, I scratch them out so I can update them at the end of the day.

    Works great for me!

  16. Nadine on the 30th August

    True, true, true. I am in for pen and paper and it seems you simply get the feel of the overall picture. What I do is to simply sit down and write down the main things that pop into my head – then I start with the one that is the most important and once done it I cross it off.

    Anyone has a good idea to keep track of things with pen and paper when you work on them for more than one day?? As I jot down every idea in this notebook as well, things are all over the place and make it difficult to read the next day.

    I welcome any ideas.

    Cheers, Lads.

    • Ana da Silva on the 11th September

      You could write your to-do’s for today and whatever’s not finished you write down first on your tomorrow’s to-do list.

  17. Frank on the 30th August

    Finding a system that’s right for anyone is hard because we are all different. I tend to agree with you about using a notebook. I also tried mind maps. This is a great tool for brain storming. There’s various software designed to help with mind mapping but I found that it was better to sketch by hand for the same reasons you mentioned about writing things on paper.

  18. Jessica Bosari on the 30th August

    Nadine: I just start a new list every day. I can always go back to the previous page for notes or outline my ideas on the new page. The info sticks after a day or two and I just have to list the item without all the notes. I usually have 1 – 3 leftovers from the day before at the top of my list today.

    • Nadine on the 15th September

      Thanks Jessica. I think there is just a bit of discipline required 🙂

  19. Frank on the 30th August

    Over the years, I’ve devised a template that works for me. On it I list my daily schedule by time blocks. I’ve inserted hyperlinks in this Word Document that point to other documents that list step by step. For example my main document might contained scheduled time to balance my quicken. This is hyperlinked to a set of procedures that I use to download my transactions from both my credit cards and my checking account. I’ve got the template blocked for weekends as well. At the back of the sheet (I print on grid paper), I use this area to doodle my mind maps and/or stuff that comes up during the day. I also have a section on pending items. Like I say it works for me!!

  20. Blair Rorani on the 13th September

    Things from cultured code = best iPad app for tasks. I hate squinting at those time iPhone screen 🙂

  21. Tom on the 13th September

    I have my FranklinCovey day-planner and BIC Velocity pencil (0.6, so it’s not too thick and not too thin to break easy) – and I stick to it for years. Nothing like old pen and paper. And nothing like the satisfaction of crossing out the completed tasks… And it’s all free format… Draw, connect, erase, highlight.

    When it comes to working with others, so I need to share things, I use 5pm task organizer web tool (http://www.5pmweb.com). Plus you can always do a search on past content – important for long projects.

    So one does not exclude another. For personal stuff a daybook with a pencil is great. For a family – a calendar on the fridge works perfectly. For teams, especially distributed, you need something like 5pm, or whatever fits you.

    There is no silver bullet. Or, I must say, there are many, each for its own use.

  22. Ruben Berenguel on the 16th September

    With time management (and in particular, task management) you should work as you feel better. Oddly, there are some times when I feel more natural with a paper list (when I am timeboxing my day, for example), but for others I feel pretty well with a program. Very recently I have started using iADD (you can check my review here) and its workflow is terrific, more than its workflow for being an iPhone app, its workflow for using the ADD system. This means that if you like it, you can use pen & paper.

    Also, I love writing by hand, and have a mild distaste for writing on my iPod Touch. The point is, when time is short I sketch a lot of my blog posts in the Notes app (put it in landscape mode and type with your thumbs). I try to strike balance, but it is hard.

    In summary… Don’t fiddle with the tools and just do the job: if you work well with just pen and paper, enjoy it!


  23. Nadine on the 29th September

    I have now actually picked two main projects, wrote a goal statement what I would like to achieve in the next 3-month (Milestones for each month for each project). For every project I bought a little notebook where I kind of start my to-do list separately depending on which project I am working on. This helps me to stay focussed and keep track of the main projects at hand. For other things that turn up, I jot them down on my main big scratch book to follow up.

    …love pen and paper – you simply have to make it work 🙂

  24. Keith Barr on the 13th April

    I’ve come closest to replacing my pen & paper with Franklin Covey’s TabletPlanner software. I’d used their paper binders for a few years and love the concept of planning your week with personal as well as business tasks and capturing new items though out the day.
    They created a great app (actually subbed development to Agilix) that embodied their time Mgmt methods in a pen based app. I loved it. I could capture tasks, contacts, appointments all via pen and even search for items via pen. Used the pen to rope notes and drag to tasks, appts, contacts as well.
    I totally agree that capturing free form via pen gets more than words, it reminds us of other detail we may not have written. It’s also a left brain, right brain thing. When we type, we use both hands and both sides of our brain. That’s why typing in a meeting is rude, others sense your distracted. Using one hand to write allows you to stay engaged and not forcing you to enter in a structure let’s your mind stay more engaged in the conversation.
    Pen apps need to exist for this reason. Problem with the FC app I loved, they stopped supporting it in favor of more integration with Outlook so back to keystrokes. Forced me to go back to paper. I do like the integration to Outlook for delegating tasks and other agenda items, just cant use the pen to really facilitate human constraints as above.
    Some day someone will really make the right app, that also can leverage our electronic comm & assignments. I’ll be an early adopter when they do.

  25. JC on the 20th December

    It´s amazing how easy we can better concentrate using this old fashioned tool (paper & pen). Apparently our mind needs to focus in order to coordinate the writing action in such a way that our concentration goes to a higher level. Totally agree!

    Best Regards

    Twitter: @ComoMeOrganizo
    Ultima Nota: Calendario – Reserve por adelantado sólo las actividades fijas

  26. Aron Ray on the 4th September

    In the use of systems management tasks no problem, on the contrary task management software applications increase the productivity of my work and groupware, for example, it makes http://www.teamwox.com/en, and does not need it smart enough to have an Internet

  27. Electronic Timesheets on the 4th October

    Earlier, I used to follow the same method of writing down my tasks and sticking it around the house, but was very much worried about the outcome, since I used to miss most of them. But now, the tools that I am using reminds me of what to do and when to do, this makes my tasks easier and task management easier too.

  28. Bill on the 10th December

    I use a loose-leaf padfolio with reinforced loose-leaf paper (so it doesn’t tear out easy)… plus the legal pad in the back of the padfolio.

    The loose leaf is for my running to-do list. The padfolio is for my daily to-do list. In the evening, I look at the running to-do list for items for the daily one for the next day. The next day as the day goes I work on my daily to-do list. As the day goes on and new things come across your desk, I write them on on either the daily list for that day or the running list depending on what it is. At the end of the day, I compare what I crossed out on the daily and then cross out the duplicate item on the running to do list. I also add anything I wrote on the daily list on-the-fly that day to the running list if I didn’t get it done. I then reassess and write out the daily list for the following day. Then about once every 2 weeks, I go through my running to-do list looking for older undone items that slipped through the cracks and decide whether to keep them. If so, I cross out the older written entry and move them to the front of the running to-do list… or if not, I simply cross it out as if I did it.

  29. Abel on the 27th January

    Great post. I agree that paper is better for to do lists. I have tried loads of fantastic apps from Things, Wunderlist, RTM and Apple’s own Reminders but you can’t beat paper as it stays in your memory and you can keep it out on your desk to glance at.

    I use a page-a-day Moleskine Diary and add key tasks or meetings on the relevant day. I then add a top three to dos for that day on the page on the day itself.I also have a another small Moleskine which is where I capture all my ideas and to dos.

    I used to use digital lists for everything, realised I spent more time fiddling with them that actually doing things

    I still use Reminders on my Phone to add things to catagorized lists such as ‘books to read’ , ‘Things that need repairing’, ‘Things I need to pack’ and add ideas to certain lists etc but all my day-to-day stuff that I need to do is written.

    Also, an age which is obsessed with the Internet and technology (and I am pretty geeky myself) I find it comforting to write things down.

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