Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Questioning My Assumptions: Switching to Paper-Based Task Management

by Andre · 7 Comments

Filofax 225 x 169A couple of years ago I tried to pull myself away from the PIM-and-PDA approach to tracking projects and actions. I bought the requisite ruled Moleskine and eagerly transferred my lists and calendar, formatting the latter by hand. The experiment failed.

The failure had to do with my work-school situation. I was working 50 hours a week and taking 12 units of classes. At work, what came in through email largely dictated what I had to do. At school, I had to capture assignments given verbally or through handouts. Just as before I switched to the Moleskine, I found it much faster to process email-based work directly on the computer than to alternate between media.

While I managed things on paper in the classroom, I found myself slowly reverting to Eudora and the Palm Desktop at work. Running dual systems made weekly reviews painful. I always felt like I was missing some project or action, even if intellectually there were no apparent leaks. Projects and actions weren’t funneled into a single place that would provide a panoramic view of the week ahead. Three-hours reviews were not uncommon.

So I went back to my old way of doing things. That meant the Palm Desktop when deskbound, the Treo and my notetaker wallet when mobile.

Returning to paper

Now that I’m a full-time freelance writer, my work is no longer dictated by a rapid influx of email, which gives me more latitude to experiment. This time I started by inventorying the problems I’ve had with paper systems:

  1. No desktop synchronization
  2. Increased bulk, especially when compared to the Palm Centro
  3. Being left-handed, looseleaf organizers are usually awkward
  4. Potentially redundant with phones containing calendars and list managers

Without email as the driving force of my work, I had to question why I was still clinging to the idea that I need to sync my data. I simply needed to reframe problem #1 as an advantage.

Problem #2 was a little more serious, at least for me. My key requirement for any organizer is that I can fit it in my pocket. If I have to carry it in my hand, I’d have to motivate myself to do so, and I don’t believe in motivation. A system that gets used most of the time is not a system at all.

Fortunately I found the expensive but terrific Filofax Mini Guilford Extra Slim. This 3″ x 4.5″ organizer looks like a regular wallet when closed, so it easily fits in my back pocket. At $60, you could almost buy a Palm Zire Z22, but I couldn’t find a cheaper organizer of similar size that was anywhere near as compelling.

The flat bound Moleskine prevented me from inserting pages between context lists. So if I ran out of space for @Home because it ran up against @Errands, I’d have to continue the @Home list in a new location, which is suboptimal. Looseleaf notebooks solve this problem for most of the population, but the rings get in the way of the left hand when it’s at the left margin, making them an issue for southpaws. The Filofax Mini’s rings are small enough to make them a nonissue.

Since the Centro is so small, and has a good calendar and list manager, I hesitated to add another “device” to duplicate this functionality. I decided to short circuit this logical argument with “So what?”, and go paper anyway. If I found it too onerous after a few days (why gurus advocate 30-day tests is something I’ll never understand), I’d drop the paper system and go back to what I had before.

Seeing progress

So far, switching to the Filofax has been an enormous distraction filter, more than I would have anticipated. When I would do my weekly reviews on my laptop, I’d often get lured into doing ostensibly under-two-minute tasks that would break my concentration. Attention matters more than time during a weekly review, so doing even short tasks should be avoided, in my opinion. Now I keep my laptop closed if it’s there at all, so there’s no internal crosstalk between what I could be doing and what I should be doing.

The Filofax’s To Do pages have checkboxes, and since I prefer to cross off completed tasks, I use the checkboxes in a novel way. If I create a next action that either takes less than two minutes during the weekly review, or would take less than two minutes in some context other than the one I’m in, I check the box.

So if I’m at a train station and come up with two-minute next actions that need to be done at home, I jot them down with a check, so that as soon as I get home, I can get those out of the way immediately. Similarly, I can write down two-minute actions during the weekly review without feeling the need to act on them at that moment, but start knocking them off the moment I finish the review.

I also underestimated how much distraction was happening by using my cell phone as a list manager. Every time I’d pull the phone out of my pocket to review an action list, I’d feel the urge to play Sudoku or Advanced Brain Trainer, validate myself on Twitter, or listen to music on Pocket Tunes. I believe than every action leads to a predictable next action, and that one of the keys to eliminating distractions is to identify whether or not what a certain habitual action leads to is productive.

I still use my David Allen Company Notetaker Wallet for spontaneous capture, since the pen is siloed right in the wallet, next to the notepad. I used to let these notes accumulate until I got to a computer to process them into the Palm Desktop. Now it’s rare that 10 minutes goes by before they’re processed into the Filofax. Incidentally, I replaced the wallet’s Rotring retractable with the Fisher Bullet Space Pen with Stylus, which is much better for freehand mind mapping and flowscaping on the Centro (using Pennovate Notes) than the Centro’s overly pliant stylus.

Perhaps the most important advantage of using separate organizer is perspective. Keeping my task management system outside of my production tools — my laptop and cell phone — provides an Archimedean vantage point that allows me to think about my workflow instead of within it.

Of course, I’ll have to keep monitoring how my productivity develops over time. There’s always a placebo effect that accompanies any change of gear, so once the novelty wears off, I’ll be in a better position to reflect on just how substantial the progress has actually been. But right now, it’s hard to imagine going back to an electronic system.

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Tags: Productivity · Questioning My Assumptions


  • VeredNo Gravatar // Jun 9, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    This is interesting.

    My handwriting is so bad now, because I hardly write anymore. Managing stuff on paper instead of electronically? I can hardly imagine that. :)

    I will need to think about it!

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jun 9, 2008 at 7:58 pm

    As long as you can recognize your handwriting, it’s not a problem. Amazing that we’ve reached the age where we’re actually discussion the capacity for handwriting recognition in humans!

    Personally, I love to write longhand, but it’s not necessarily for everyone.

  • VeredNo Gravatar // Jun 9, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    I often wonder if people will eventually lose the ability to handwrite. Evolution could make it happen, if we keep relying on technology so heavily.

    It’s a scary thought.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jun 9, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    Tim O’Reilly once remarked about how memory seems to have declined since the demise of oral cultures. It wasn’t uncommon for people to memorize poems that were hundred of lines long. Books have largely replaced that type of memory.

    Over time we gain abilities and lose faculties. So we can track 40 projects by keeping them out of our heads and putting them into an external system, but we lose the ability to recall everything we have to do. I think it’s a net positive exchange, like losing some agility in arithmetic in exchange for using calculators that allow you to focus on mathematics.

  • augmentedfourthNo Gravatar // Jun 9, 2008 at 11:16 pm

    I’ve been using a hybrid paper/electronic system for a while now. I use SimpleGTD to manage my full action and project lists, but I print the next (starred) SimpleGTD actions on to index cards separated by context. The printing is done by a custom shell script I wrote to pull down the SGTD lists, parse them into separate files by context, and print them on 3×5 cards.

    I keep the cards in a $10 Buxton Note Jotter (basically a Levenger Shirt Pocket Briefcase without the hefty price tag). During the day, I review, check off, and write new actions, manually “synchronizing” back to the Web service during my daily review and printing new cards if the old ones are too defaced. I also keep a few blank cards in the visible portion of the Jotter for ubiquitous capture and note-taking.

    My Weekly Review is initiated by my personal server shooting an email to my work address with a checklist. It’s basically the one provided in this blog’s Pattern Language series, but I modified it a little to suit my own needs. However, based on this post, I think the fact that I do the bulk of that review in front of the computer might provide me with too much distraction. I’ll have to think about what I can do to keep myself in Review mode and not keep dropping into Do.

  • J-MoNo Gravatar // Jun 12, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    I use paper–a simple desk calendar I get from work. I much prefer it to electronic systems, because I don’t have to stop what I’m doing and look at a million different devices to get my schedule in check. It’s all written down in my calendar.

    My cell phone contacts are in my cell’s phone book, but full addresses, emails, and other vital, off-line info is all ina simple, spiral-bound notebook by my land line phone.

    I prefer to keep things simple.


  • Febi GuiboNo Gravatar // Jun 29, 2008 at 9:38 pm

    Thank you very much for this post… I have actually tried this and so far, it’s working great. I think there’s a lot of value to keeping the thinking / planning tools separate from the production tools.

    Fyi: I bought the filofax guildford extra slim POCKET size planner… it works great with 3×5 cards (very excited about this).