Should I Use a Paper or Electronic Organizer?

Ah, the evergreen question of all self-proclaimed productivity geeks. Should you keep your appointments and action lists on paper or in an electronic organizer? The answer: pick one.  Making a decision work is more important than making the right decision.

It really doesn’t matter. No, really, it doesn’t. I’ve spent most of my organized years using an electronic setup with a smartphone synced with a desktop PIM — initially the Palm Desktop. Then I briefly defected to a paper organizer, which I swore by for a few weeks until the novelty and its placebo effect wore off, then I returned to an electronic system. Due to the reduced administrative overhead of my current work situation (less email, less customer interaction), I’ve recent been flirting with the idea of just dumping everything on a legal pad, keeping all of my lists on a single sheet.

The difference is that this time around, I’m not emotionally invested in the change because it’s only a matter of determining which system yields the greater drag reduction in my workflow. It’s not the medium that doesn’t the heavy lifting. Task management is a mental game. The system that works best is the one you review most frequently.

So pick a tool, whether it’s Outlook, a paper tablet, an Apple tablet or a DayRunner, and get everything into the system. If you find flipping through pages to find the right task entry is inefficient after a few weeks, jump ship into an electronic system. If not having your task list persistently visible makes it easy to “forget” what you have to do, hello paper. Don’t use the “wrong” tool as an excuse not to get your full inventory of work out of your head an into a place where you can just look at what to do next instead of having to continually rethink it.

Any System Is Better than No System

Whether you use paper or plastic (computers or electronics), you something other than your head to store your tasks. Using a tool doesn’t make you a tool. List and calendar management isn’t as fashionable as it was a few years ago. These days it’s sexier to complain about mounting email and tasks and simply declare “bankruptcy”. But it’s an illusion that trimming down your to do list, in itself, enables you to get more done.

In reality, you can never “do” your list; you can only ever do one thing at a time. Any one thing you do involves choosing dozens of things not to do, and there’s no difference between not doing 10 tasks and not doing 100. So if you have any intention of doing them at all, put them on a list — even if it’s a “Deferred” or “Someday/Maybe” list that gives you permission to review it later without committing to acting on it now.

Some people argue that maintaining an external system is conductive for certain personality types and detrimental for others. So-called “creatives” are usually cited as unsystematic workers. I’d argue that on closer inspection, the difference is in the type of work that needs to be done, not the type of person doing it. Just as a hot dog vendor can calculate change in his head while an engineer needs an electronic calculator get work done, some jobs don’t have enough detail to require calendars or to do lists. If you get more than a screenful of email each day and go to meetings, you’re probably in the latter group.

How your work is structured can determine to a large extent whether you’ll be more efficient with paper or digital systems. In a previous job where I had to process a ton or orders that came in by phone and email, it was much simpler to drag and drop email orders into an Action folder and handle phone orders by copying and pasting information from an inventory lookup to an action list. One of my favorite features or digital systems is the ability to copy and paste notes to appointments and task entries as attachments.

Some jobs require more face-to-face interaction, or longer spans of creative focus (writing, graphic design, programming), and there’s less to be gained by copying and pasting information back and forth. Instead of a long list of tasks, you have a short list of long tasks. If you’re a full-time singer-songwriting, for instance, you don’t need a list to tell you to “Write next song” or “Rehearse”. The work is self-evident.

Most office workers, on the other hand, have more to do than can be responsibly managed without external reminders. Using a list instead of your memory is like storing books on a shelf instead of in your arms. Once you’ve set the burden outside of yourself, you’ll free up mental energy that can be applied toward doing your work instead of remembering it.

So pick a medium and get started, but always treat it as an experiment instead of a permanent commitment. You can always move the contents of your paper organizer to an electronic one, or vice versa.

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Andre Kibbe currently works as a content analyst for Internet Brands. He can be found on Twitter: @andrekibbe


  1. Julius on the 14th April

    Electgronic systems have worked well for me, but I first try to remember as much important information as possible. The details I think I won’t be able to recall properly are stored in my computer.

  2. Gabriel Bayles on the 14th April

    This is the most usefull article I have seen on this site in a couple of weeks. I get about 3 screens of email a day, most of it is departmental noise. I have in the last year found it impossible to do my job without a smart phone, an electonic to do list, and a note organizing program. It amazes me how much more efficient i am at my job. I stopped missing important emails and meeting requests. I find work to bring home with me so I can telecomute when
    overtime is required ( I’m an hourly technician so this is a good thing) I sometimes feel like I am running laps around my co-worker who has been here many more years than me.

  3. Elliott Fienberg on the 15th April

    actually for the singer-songwriter example, it’s not all self-evident. when you’re working through a song you can come up with dozens of tasks and critiques that need following up with. and when you escalate to something like an album you can have quite a numerous list.

  4. Elliott Fienberg on the 15th April

    also has anyone used Things? i have an iphone but not a mac, so i’m worried that i’m tied to just a handheld to-do list.

  5. The Simple Machine on the 15th April

    I generally use google calendar for organizing my life on the cloud. The Google cloud feeds my iPhone with all my google calendar events and vise-versa.

    Read about how I always pay my bills on time because of google calendar

  6. David Chao on the 17th April

    I just had this discussion with my 13 year old daughter. She receives assignments and correspondence from her school via her school email. So, she is using Exchange through OWA. She just started piano teaching and has been trying to figure out how to maintain her school assignments, her lacrosse practice, youth group and piano lessons. She wanted a big calendar she could tape to her room. However, her mother informed her she needed something more mobile.

    I’ve waffled back between paper and PDA for years. Lately, I’ve been more on the smartphone but now contemplating switching to an Ipad. Most important advice I can provide is to have only ONE central calendar, don’t mix the two.

  7. Lala on the 18th July

    NOt Very Helpful

  8. becky on the 11th November

    there’s substance to your posts and I appreciate that. thank you!

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