Six More Reasons to Use a Paper To Do List


writing handYou’d think the proliferation of webware might make paper to do lists obsolete. For some people, though, no electronic task list can replace the joys of paper and pen. In my almost six months writing for Web Worker Daily, I’ve come across many appealing web-based to do list managers — Gubb and Remember the Milk are two especially nice options — but none that can overcome my commitment to paper to do lists.

To complement Five Reasons to Use a Paper To Do List, here are six more.

1. Gives you a reason to buy and try cool pens and notebooks. WWD reader Ryan loves his Namiki Vanishing Point retractable fountain pen, but I’m a gel gal myself. Zebra Sarasa gel retractables come in a multi-color tenpack of subdued and sophisticated colors, but for me, nothing beats the 0.7mm bold Pentel EnerGel in purple. Pilot G2 gel pens also come highly recommended; plus, they’re offered in a convenient mini size.

As for notebooks, WWD reader Tim recommends the Levenger Circa system while Danny De Wit likes Moleskines and letter-sized Mead Folios. I’ve been using 5″x8″ Cambridge Limited notebooks, also by Mead, and like their moderate size and decent quality at only $5 each.

2. You can doodle pictures or mind maps on your to do lists. C’mon, make your to do lists fun, because you’re probably going to be referring to them multiple times a day. Mind mapping guru Tony Buzan claims that creating organically-shaped and colorful diagrams engage your mind and help you learn and remember information better. Whether that’s true or not, there’s no doubting that for some people, creating a freeform task list with pen and paper makes the management of to dos more fun.

3. Paper and pen don’t set off the anti-electronics alarms of family and friends. Write your to do list on paper at the kitchen table and your spouse is unlikely to chastise you or tell your friend who calls that you’re doing crack (-berry, that is). If you’re putting to do items into your PDA at dinner time or worse, sitting in your office at your computer while the rest of the family hangs in the den, better watch out. You’re toast and not the kind made with bread.

If you’re on a device capable of surfing the web, people around you will think you’re checked out of what’s happening in meatspace. If you’re merely doodling on paper with your favorite pen, you seem relatively available for interaction. Given most of us web workers spend way too many hours online, it’s good to have something productive to do that doesn’t involve Internet access.

4. It’s so convenient to write stuff down. There’s no device to turn on, no application to launch, no account to log into. Just grab your pen and paper and go. Write wherever and whenever you want with no friction except the physical feel of the ink flowing onto the paper.

5. You can change your to do list “data model” at any time. You can use prioritization schemes like starring or circling items, add due dates at will, categorize however you like, and change the format again and again. You aren’t limited to just the fields a to do list app supports. You can rewrite at any time.

This is a drawback when looked at another way — because paper to do list items are much less queryable and sortable than electronic to do lists.

6. Forces you to limit your list and eliminate what’s unimportant. It’s really easy to add more and more electronic to do items; not so easy to do so with paper to do lists. When my lists start getting messy, I rewrite them, in the process eliminating or revising tasks that no longer fit my plans.

Of course, many people prefer electronic to do list managers to paper. How do you manage your to dos? Share in the comments.


Kenton A. Hoover

I prefer paper lists, but I keep them in an Excel spreadsheet just to encourage me to prune them periodically and deal with the perennial/weed items. I have a number of the pages of my Moleskine preped with double-sided Post-It tape and I put the lists on those pages. That allows me to make additions in the field, and clean them up at an appropriate time later.

I found the old process of actually using pages offended my aesthetics.

I disagree about Mead paper quality; except for the higher end stuff.


are people really talking about the pros of… writing a list with paper and pen??? this is way too surreal for me…

another commenter

You forgot the best reason to use pen and paper: Scratching completed tasks off the list once it’s done is WAY more satisfying in this medium.


I’m definitely a pen-and-paper guy. My Pilot Vanishing Point and Moleskine never leave my side. I’ve forgotten my wallet before forgetting them. I recently switched from a larger 5×8 binder for my Getting Things Done system to a more pocket-friendly Levenger Pocket Briecase / Moleskine solution. It requires carrying three objects; the levenger pocket briefcase, a plain moleskine, and a moleskine weekly plannery; but it is still more convenient than a big old book.

The Levenger Pocket Briefcase is worth trying for anyone who uses 3×5 cards and can stomach paying $40 for the equivalant of a ten cent aligator clip. It holds every corner of the card so it doesn’t get stuck going in or out of your pocket. I love it.


I disagree on some things. An online list allows you to search for an item in the to-do list (using the search functions of the browser) and therefore minimizes repeat tasks, while on my paper lists I have many repeat tasks.

Dave Navarro

I love my moleskine (fits in any pocket and is ‘nigh invulnerable’). I keep a thin 5-10 stack of post-its in the back for portable to-do lists (and my top “today” items become a page-1 sticky.). Post its also make good tabs as well.

But, like anything else, it’s constantly evolving as my needs change.

PS – Pilot G-2s ROCK

David Hollingworth

What a great post. I have two notebooks

1. A ‘paperblanks’ A6 sized ruled notebook from Hartley & Marks. This I use as my ‘carry everywhere’ paper inbox.

2. I have a larger Moleskin unruled notebook that I used specifically for mind maps. My paperblanks notebook would be too small for doing mind maps. I really bought the Moleskin on impulse because I was so surprised to find them available in Ireland, and in Cork at that!

My writing tool is a Mitsubishi Signo gel pen. Yes, I’m a big fan of gel pens too.

However my to-do list is held electronically. This is because I have a very large list of single tasks and projects on the go or on the horizon. Holding these electronically allows me to very easily view subsets (like all the next actions or todays closed list) and allows me to easily reorganize things. If I wanted to reorganize a paper list that big it would take hours.

By the way I use My Life Organized from


Catherine Carey

Go green:

1. Use the backs of envelopes
2. Reuse paper printed on one side. Cut it in quarters and keep a stack by the phone, the computer, the fridge.


ops… send it too soon…

…. CO2 and other gases).

So, in my opinion, electronic lists are much better for the enviornment.


Well… sometimes you can loose your favourite pen and/or notebook and then its a bummer. If you do it online, you can never loose it (praticularly important for people who loose everything, like me).

If you use the computer all day anyway, then there is no added environmental impact of to-doing online. If you do it on paper, there is the impact of cutting trees to make the notebook, bleaching chemicals to make the paper, toxic ink for lines/cover of the paper, toxic ink in the pen, petroleum products to make the plastic for the pen, which goes to landfill if your pen is disposable, plus water and energy to produce those things, plus transport to get them to you (emitting CO2

Ibn Shahid

Yep, I prefer using paper and pen also… over PDAs… got to do lot more work just to put a new “to do” item in… : )

Steve Jones

The thirty minutes or so you take each day creating a to do list and planning your day are the most relaxing time of the day. Just you, a pen and your planner. Peace.


The relationship to paper lists is much more physical, friendly. Writing something down by hand etches it in your memory. And you have complete and total control over your setup–you’re not dependent on the whims of corporate software design.

A couple more advantages…

Paper is a much more stable archival device than any electronic medium. Books and documents 500 years old still survive. Meanwhile, electronic stuff gets locked into proprietary formats, or is stored on hard drives that disintegrate, or is lost on a computer that no longer works. The paper stuff I’m writing now will still be instantly accessible 50 years from now.

At the same time, paper is also more private. Do I really want some computer hacker (or police state) to get into my calendar and to-do list? The only person who’s going to see your paper list is someone who has access to the physical item itself. [Granted — password protection is impossible.]

Mike Panic

The binder clip is an amazing office accessory. The nicest thing about a stack of paper for a PDA is you can jot stuff down and give it to someone else.

Personally, I’m a big fan of blank backed business cards for this very reason.


I personally use an (and only ONE) index card daily that I carry in my shirt pocket or in my hand. This stops me from adding things that aren’t important, and it also helps me to make sure I get as much done during the day as possible. I don’t want to start tomorrow off with a card that’s already almost full. It really keeps me on track and forces me to complete projects in one day if at all possible!

Doug K

yes, paper and pen make a fine PAA (personal analog assistant).
For me it’s mostly about getting to use a good pen, shallow as I may be..


First, please never use the term “meatspace” again. It’s so 1995. Plus, it’s kind of gross.

I followed the cult of the Moleskine for many years, leaving after a concerned family member staged an intervention. Since then, I’ve discovered that the joy of paper actually multiplies once I got over the objects and started focusing on my writing. I have lovely penmanship, if you really need to know.

I’m currently using a series (yes, I carry around four of them) of wide-ruled composition books. The Mead brand books have paper that is actually better than the Moleskine paper. Anyone telling you otherwise is trying to justify their 20x expenditure. I buy my notebooks for under a buck each (which is why I use the wide-ruled. College ruled would be better, but those cost more, because the company figures they can).

They’re cheap enough that I can dedicate one notebook to each major area of responsibility in my life. And, unlike yellow pads, they stay together and are durable enough to withstand surprising abuse. Sometimes, it’s literal abuse, and they seem to just shrug it off. Try that with a Moleskine (no, don’t. Trust me: they fall apart after high-speed collisions with concrete walls).

I still have some electronic components, but nothing I can’t print out and stick in a paper notebook. That’s how I do my calendar, my lists, my ideas, everything.

Chris K

Not only do I use pencil (or pen, I’m not rigid) and paper for my lists, I find I can be more creative, insightful, or ruthless when taking writing tool to paper when writing and editing.

Dave Good

I love my moleskines. Yes, plural. I use them as note books for my various classes, idea farms ( where my various brain droppings go), and even as sketch books. I collect all the intellectual detrius that floats about in my life and with the aid of my Pilot Varsity founatin pens, and a good glue stick, I record it all. I have to say though, that most really important items (i.e. time critcal assignments, appointments, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.) are locked into my cell phone’s organizer. A friendly buzz on the hip and an urgent ring help out alot, but pictures, graphs, idea trees…found in my moleskine.
Organizationally, though, my moleskines are my idea backbone. I love using the grid rulled pages, which can really help when you need to do a quick and dirty diagram, and don’t have a straight edge right near by.

Jodi Gaines

Paper and pen are nice, especially when I am out. But what I use most is my white board – love it! I have a huge one sitting above my desk and everything I need to do (from home to office) is on that board. I take great pleasure in staring at it on Sunday evening, with eraser and marker in hand, to prepare for the coming week.

Logical Extremes

I gave up my PDA several years ago, and may never go back (though something iPhone-like may eventually sway me). My PAA is a 3×5 Circa notebook for my calendar, to-dos, key project notes, and some other lists (I write small).

This is a drawback when looked at another way — because paper to do list items are much less queryable and sortable than electronic to do lists.

A to-do list isn’t Gmail, when one accumulates 2.8GB of to-dos, there are bigger problems.

Anne, great post as usual. I’ve nominated you for one of the top five Geeks of 2007.


This really resonates with me, as I’ve been a paper to do list man since managing my shoe sales commissions at 17. Item #2 reminded me immediately of the essential Montessori philosophy of incorporating tactile props in learning, e.g those numerical rods to physically teach a child about numbers and the magical binomial cube. Crafting and re-crafting my to do lists is a relaxer.


This post makes me remember and observe one thing.

I use even Notepad and paper to write my posts. Whenever I want to write, I write.. so I always carry a piece of paper with me. What amazes me is I feel paper and the pen is the best ever tool and it’s the most productive as well.

Micah Choquette

I think the best part of paper to-do lists is that your list model is only limited by your imagination. Just yesterday, I was actually thinking of learning some programming to create the kind of todo list that I’d like, and then I read this. Huge “duh” moment for me.

Amie Gillingham

Paper lists = safer, too. This is probably TMI (although I doubt I am alone in this) but I do a lot of list making in the tub. Same with re-writing key copy for my site, outlines for presentations, and jotting down the next big idea. From that quiet flow in the tub, I shall someday conquer the world with my slightly soggy steno-pad and favourite blue pen.

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