Blog Post

Five Reasons to Use a Paper To Do List

pen and paperAs web workers, we have access to many online to do list managers like Remember The Milk, 37Signals’ Ta-da Lists, and Zoho Planner. But I prefer pen and paper, and I’m not the only one. In his summary of Web 2.0 Summit demos, Richard MacManus admits he uses paper notebooks. Speaking about drawing his business card cartoons, gapingvoid’s Hugh MacLeod says “there’s a certain je ne sais quoi you only get with ink on paper.” And we all know people who can’t live without their Moleskines.

How is pen on paper better than online or electronic to do lists?

Using pen on paper just feels good. You need the right paper and the right pen–an old Bic on a decrepit yellow sticky note won’t get you to tactile nirvana–but with proper equipment, isn’t it much more satisfying to write a new to do item onto a piece of paper than to type it into your laptop or thumb it into your Treo? What about that triumphant feeling when you scribble off something you’ve finished? Clicking a checkbox with your mouse doesn’t compare.

You can’t beat pen and paper’s mobility and accessibility. Take your paper notebooks or your index cards or your looseleaf lists anywhere and use them anywhere, even if you don’t have network access, electricity, or battery power.

Never hassle over synchronizing your to do list across multiple devices again. If you do capture items here and there on bits of paper, consolidating is easy: just write it all onto your master list when you get the chance.

No application lock-in. Getting tired of Moleskines? Want to try something snazzier, like Paperblanks or Rhodia notebooks? No problem–just buy a new brand, transfer anything you need to by hand, and you’ve switched. No wrangling with data export and import, no operating system compatibility worries, no software installation or configuration required.

Pen on paper gets you away from the computer. It can be hard on your wrists, your eyes, and your back to work at a computer constantly. Using a Blackberry can leave you in need of a hand massage. Writing on a paper to do list might be just the ergonomic break your body needs.

Maybe one day I’ll switch to an online personal planner. Chris just reviewed Stikkit, which sounds pretty cool. Liz had some good ideas for integrating to do lists into gmail. For now, though, I’m sticking with paper and pen. What about you?

37 Responses to “Five Reasons to Use a Paper To Do List”

  1. John Cawley

    Paper. At our peril, we forget we are embodied. Paper plus pen or pencil or highlighter help us create with the focus and joy of our bodies as well as our minds and spirits.

  2. I, too, am a huge fan of paper. I like how tactile it is. I like that my lists can be chaotic, go off on tangents, and can easily accodate both work and life tasks. Paper to-do lists are harder to ignore because it sits there next to your computer, staring at you with its black or blue or purple ink du jour, asking “are you ever going to finish cleaning out your inbox?” or “did you remember to call your toddler’s doctor to reschedule?”

    Like others, my daughter (nearly 3) loves mommy’s special notebook and likes to add tasks to the list. Apparently, today I am supposed to practice making circles and the letter W.

  3. Anne,
    I can’t recommend Levenger’s Circa system enough. Great stuff. Almost any medium-point ballpoint pen on their paper feels great. Whether jotting a todo list (my most common use) or struggling through your next post (also pretty common), you’ve hit it on the head. Nothing feels so good or conveys the same sense of possibility as a great pen on great paper.

    As ever, keep up the great work.

  4. I’ve used a paper list for years – so I guess it’s like trying to teach an old dog new tricks. Plus I like to have something I can look at all day while I sit there wondering if I’ll ever get to the end of my list :o)

    When I write things down, it also helps to jog my memory about other things I need to – so I guess I’ll always be a paper guy at heart.

    Stone Gate Articles

  5. I use my PDA for my main to do list, but pen and paper for particular groupings of tasks which I don’t want to have to set up a dedicated category for on my PDA, or because my PDA doesn’t give me enough control over how I need to record my list; sometimes if I’m recording a to do list in a group meeting environment, it’s alot quicker to use pen and paper and then maybe follow it up with an electronically recorded version. Also, even with default reminders on PDAs, Outlooks etc, I still sometimes prefer the post it note stuck to the monitor.

  6. I find my desktop task management software indispensible. I would find it much harder to manage it all using a paper to-do list.

    Here are some of the things that I can do with my desktop planner that would be harder with a paper to-do list:

    – Prioritize and move entries around easily (automatically sorted)
    – Separate entries by project so that I can focus on one project at a time without getting distracted by other things
    – Get an automatic indication if there is a task with a deadline that fell through the cracks
    – Break up larger tasks into smaller steps when needed
    – Schedule project/tasks on my calendar (with automatic linking)

    Even so, I still use a paper “scratch pad” to write down certain tasks now and then, but I always transfer them back to my desktop task manager to get them done.

  7. I would tend to agree with you. My wife is a great one for scribbling to-do lists on paper and is an avid fan of the good old fashioned paper-based diary. I use the internet for lots of great things but I’ve never really got on with electronic to-do lists. I use Microsoft Outlook for reminders but that’s about it. Any list based stuff I tend to write on paper, it’s just a lot more accessible and easy to flick through.

    I’ve always been tempted by the idea of a PDA but I’m sure its novelty factor would soon wear off and it would sit somewhere gathering dust.

  8. I use notecards a lot on the weekends for todo lists. As you mentioned, I like the ability to scribble things out as they are finished. My expensive PDA is nice but I prefer just using it as portable storage and to play music or as a calender.

    I’ve also started keeping a paper notebook for work related tasks during day to day work activity. I find I keep up with it a lot more if it’s on paper. Sure, I could make an Excell schedule of when I changed light bulbs or when the transmitter generators had maintainance but I’m more likely to keep it up if I don’thave to remember where I saved the file and I’m less likely to be distracted by the whole of the internet as I often do when I sit at the PC. Just flip open the notebook and jot the dates down or notes on how some equipment repairs went. I can even transport it to the transmitter when I go out there to work, something my PC won’t do.

  9. I love the web. I find myself using it more and more each day in ways that I never would have believed even a year or two ago. But I write to-do lists, shopping lists, and tons of other lists as well, on 3×5 cards. Most anything I have ever organized, whether new database structures, the novel I’m writing, research reports–anything–starts off a little better on 3×5 cards. You can carry them around and mull them over no matter where you are. Nobody looks funny at you (and admit it, pull out your moleskine and you brand yourself in weird and unpleasant ways).

    I do use paper notebooks for things I can’t type, like meeting notes and private thoughts and such. And I love the moleskines, particularly the gridded 5X8 ones, but 3x5s are, unlike these, completely indespensible for anyone who lives by ideas. There are lots of great pens, too, but I find myself returning to the pencil again and again.

  10. I love pen and paper to do lists for many reasons. We do that in fitness to keep track of our injested foods daily. When it’s written it is already a review of what to do in our brains. I think the art of lettering writing is becoming a lost art, and I notice when I write a list, I am also practicing my handwriting (which is not nearly as good as it used to be.) Loved the article and it reminded me I need to “update” yesterday’s list of what still needs to be done:)

  11. Mixed. At work, I’ve gotten used to first scribbling thoughts on a piece of paper, then when everything is about as I want it, I transfer it to the wiki. Even a dual-screen setup is no match for the ease of use of reading things on-screen and simultaneously jotting them down.

  12. Actually I am addicted to the pc. you can write and re-write and everything looks neat. I think the pc is the best invention for people like me you cannot write a line without wanting to change it.

  13. Pen and paper every time. Why? Lookupability. I’m always flicking back through my daybook to find a note I wrote about something. When I find the note – usually within 15 seconds – not only do I get the textual content, but I get drawings, symbols, context, dates, emotions…all things that are difficult to represent electronically.

    If you showed me a gadget that weighed the same as a daybook and a biro, was as robust, consumed as much power, was as expressive…then I’d consider it. I don’t expect to see any such thing any time in the next 20 years.

  14. I’ve tried many “organiser” tools and still come back to pen and paper myself. The only problem is finding information that is not current, paging back through your notes can be a little time consuming bit the tradeoff at being able to write (or draw) exactly what you need is huge.

  15. I have an enormous whiteboard that I got about 3 weeks ago. I love it. I just scribble things on it – and it has a weekly calendar, as manual as you can get. But I can look at it and know who I am interviewing or speaking with during the day. When I go on trips, I move it into an online calendar.

    I have a steno pad on my desk. I jot things in it as I think of them. And I circle things – dont know why but I do :) Then as each one is done, it gets crossed out with a red pen.

    Years ago, a boss gave me one of the first palm pilots. Loved it for a day. Then just could never seem to get into it.

    I am also a pen freak – having about 400 pens here so what would I use them for if not this? Right now the “Intercontinental Le Grand” pen is getting much work.

  16. Ha! I have the exact same problem with my own kids. My two year old now LOVES notebooks. My solution has been to buy him his own little folio, just like mine, and let him have his own. I actually try to keep my own in a pocket or a bag, because if he sees it, he’s gotta have it.

    Actually, that might be a paper advantage. What if your kid gets your fancy PDA? Yikes.

  17. Hey, Anne, I use an all-paper GTD setup. I find that the hassle of having to use a stylus or thumb keyboard for input to be just enough hassle to make me think, “Oh, I’ll remember to write it down later.”

    And of course I don’t. The sync thing is a big issue, too.

    I actually use the little 59 cent top-spiral notebooks, because I write one to-do item on a page and rip them out when they’ve been appended to the appropriate project sheets, my calendar, whatever. As soon as an items been put in its proper place, I rip that piece of paper out of the notebook.

    The notebook itself is in a little folio that takes that size notebooks, mostly because the folio has a loop for a pen, which means that the notebook is always near a pen.

    BTW, congrats on the new gig! I found out about Anne 2.0 through the OPML community, I think.

  18. Anne – i totally agree with using paper. Most of the time its much more convenient to jot down ideas when on the go, and especially when you cant stand sitting in front on the computer and need some semi- downtime. I use notebooks all the time. I usually end up transferring ideas to Google Docs where I can share, search and edit them easily.

    My only pet peeves with paper notebooks.. my daughter loves to rip pages out, scribble on my pages, spill stuff on then, crinkle pages, and my cat loves to eat them, and sleep on them. Then again, they do those things to my computers too! But all that stuff makes me smile, so i guess its not that bad after all.

    PS.. Welcome to the WebWorkerDaily team!

  19. I was about to invoke Kathy’s name in the context of tablets for data entry, and here she is suggesting them herself. How great. I love the idea of combining the pleasures of writing and doodling with the benefits of digital information capture.

  20. “No application lock-in”
    Perhaps not technically, but psychologically… just trying prying a Moleskine out of the hands of one of the devoted. ; )

    There’s some evidence that the way you move your hand when you write or sketch on paper can improve the retention and recall (and sometimes even understanding) of what you write, in a way that doesn’t happen with typing words. The intimate brain connection between thinking and doing (including mirror neurons and all that) keeps pointing to more reasons to include more of the body–more movement–when we’re in the process of thinking.

    For me, the difference between mind-mapping vs. typing a list–even if the topic is the same–is dramatic. I heart my Wacom, but paper still turns me on the most.

    Thanks for this post! And congratulations on being here; I’m looking forward to your posts here.

  21. I am with Peter. All my reasons for doing the electronic thing are much in line with his (my handwriting is completely illegible).

    I do like the idea of the wacom tablets thought. I do have a tendency to brainstorm on a whiteboard or piece of paper (although I am using Freemind more and more every day), so a tablet would be ideal.

  22. I use paper only to put down thoughts, because jotting down thoughts on keyboard is not so intuitive and can not do any freehand drawings. Once I figure out what to do, I will use electronic versions of task lists. ( (I am buying a wacom intuos this week, so I will get rid of paper, almost always. However, I regularly take a print out with tasks for a week a head and keep it always in my pocket, to track and jot down new ones when I am away from my computer.) The electronic versions have lots of advantages over note book. I am listing four reasons why I prefer electronic versions over paper.

    1. View: Can see pending tasks based on priority and category. For example, a click will throw out all items I need to buy at a local mall while another click will throw out all phone calls I need to make today.
    2. Prioritization & Tracking : Adjusting priorities is my favourite option, that is available only with electonic versions. And it is so painful to postpone or trackdown missing items from last month on paper.
    3. Alerts: Most important and invaluable features of all electronic versions. SMS /Email alerts have no counter part on paper. It is quite natural to be carried away in some or the other thing. An SMS in time will keep you focused.
    4. Sharing: I can share selected items from my todo lists with friends and family at any point and we can finish them more effectively. With a notebook approach, its a pain to do so.

    For those strained by a computer, here is a tip, try out Dragon Naturally speaking and intuoso. I am a software developer for almost 7 years, and I understand the pain. But don’t let that take away the goodies the electronic versions bring in. When it comes to effectiveness, paper can’t beat electronic versions.

  23. Michael: that emergent task timer looks useful, though I’m not sure I’m ready to know how much time I’m spending surfing the web each day.

    Peter: with my paper to do lists, you’re right, I don’t get a searchable archive. I’m the kind of person who likes to throw out stuff as soon as I’m finished with it, get it behind me, so that works okay, but it’s not for everyone. Text files do seem like a good way to avoid the overhead of a dedicated online to do list manager but still reap the benefits you mention.

  24. I used pen and paper for a long time and still do while “on the move”, but I find a simple Notepad/Textmate style to do list invaluable. Why?

    – I can always read my typing – not always true about my writing
    – I can easily re-order tasks which I almost always have to do. Try re-ordering 30 tasks on a piece of paper – ten times. Then trying doing the same using cut and pase on a laptop . . .
    – I can find tasks by keyword so I can afford to have plenty of “some day” tasks and just find them via search.
    – I can easily save my historic “done” tasks – again for searching by project or other key words down the line.