Unplugged Organization: The Sticky-Note GTD System


When I was in high school (in the early ’90s), my friends and I scoffed at the idea of paper-based organization. “Who wants to keep their life in a little book?” we asked. So, we all gradually started keeping our lives in our phones and/or computers instead. Is that progress? I’m not so sure. At least once a month, I see a Facebook post from a friend or colleague saying that a phone or computer crashed, and they’re rebuilding their calendar and contacts from scratch.

I know the idea of keeping your information in “the cloud” is supposed to offer optimal security, but between power outages, network failures, and the bizarrely aggressive approach the government is taking towards the internet in general, it sure doesn’t FEEL secure. More to the point, I’ve tried almost every GTD and To-Do tracking program out there, and found all of them to be either too complex, too primitive, or too time-consuming. About three years ago, I started exploring contemporary paper-based organization systems (“Moleskine GTD”), and I found the concept very appealing, but the systems I saw described seemed unnecessarily complicated. So, I developed my own.

It would be accurate to call this a “Moleskine GTD” system in the generic sense, although I’d like to mention that I have switched from made-in-China Moleskine notebooks to the slightly less expensive, much more eco-friendly, and made in the USA Ecosystem notebooks (which are largely identical to Moleskine, except that the paper is thicker). The Ecosystem medium-size “Artist” journal is the basis for my system.

I’m a fan of David Allen’s GTD system, and if you’re familiar with the terminology of that approach, this should all seem quite familiar to you. If you’re not familiar with GTD, it should still make sense, although the rationale behind things like context-based action lists is something you’re probably better off learning about by reading Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

Here’s how the system works. On the first two pages of the notebook, I paste a printout of my most frequently-needed contact info. How I got all my data from Apple Address Book into Open Office so that I could actually work with it will be a topic for a later post. For obvious reasons, I’m not showing a picture of those pages.

Starting at the beginning of each year, I print out my two-page organization template. You can download my PDF here, or make your own, prettier one.

The first page of the PDF gets pasted into the next two pages of the notebook, like this.

As you can see, the left-hand page is a “Tickler” in GTD parlance, and the right-hand page becomes a framework for “Next Action” lists, grouped by context. Rather than writing individual actions on the paper itself, I write them on mini sticky notes, which I arrange as I see fit. In this way, I can use the same two pages of the notebook indefinitely. If I have a multi-step project that requires a number of actions, I simply stack up the sticky notes. When I complete an action, I peel off the sticky note and throw it away. I have never found a computer program that allows me to stack “dependent events” as intuitively as a pile of sticky notes. Adding a third dimension (depth) to my list also allows me to use space much more efficiently than making a vertical list of actions for each project. This is the key to my system.

I don’t color-code my sticky notes, because I find it to be an unnecessary layer of complexity (and I invariably run out of the color I need, which messes up the whole system), but if you are a color-coding aficionado, it would be very easy to incorporate it into this system by using different colors of sticky notes to represent different priority levels. Instead, I tend to put the most urgent actions at the top of the page, and shuffle less urgent ones towards the bottom. I also “star” actions that I really need to remember. Obviously, that’s just personal preference, and you should do whatever makes sense to you.

The next two pages are for “Waiting For” and “Someday/Maybe Later” actions. Again, I write items on individual sticky notes. This completes the GTD portion of my system. By the way, I stick stacks of blank sticky notes in the inside cover of the notebook, so that I always have some handy.

In order to cut the cord completely, and go fully paper-based, I’ve given up using an electronic calendar as well. For keeping track of scheduled events, I download a year of calendars from here, print them out at and paste them into the notebook. It takes me about a year to fill up a notebook, so I paste in a year’s worth of monthly calendars. My calendar system is very low-tech. Firm events get written in pen, tentative events get written in pencil. I do not use sticky notes for calendar events because I like to be able to look back on the calendar and see when things happened. More to the point, once a day is used up, I have no need to use that same patch of paper “real estate” again, so I don’t need to conserve it by using sticky notes.

Every couple of weeks, or any time my calendar changes significantly, I photocopy the current calendar page and stick it on my refrigerator at home. This accomplishes the dual function of giving my wife a vague clue about my schedule, and serving as a backup calendar in case I misplace my notebook for a day or two. Instead of syncing my phone and my computer, I sync my notebook and my fridge.

Of course, I try not to lose my notebook, but people try not to lose their phones too, and we all know how often it happens anyway. The difference is that – unlike a phone – nobody can sell a partially used notebook on Craigslist for a quick few bucks. So,I put my contact info in the inside cover of the notebook, indicate that there’s a reward for returning it, and trust in the kindness (and avarice) of strangers.

I’ve looked at a lot of different paper-based organization system, and I’ve never seen anyone use sticky notes for action items, and stacks of sticky notes for multi-step projects, so I believe that my approach is somewhat unique. Even if it isn’t, I feel that I’ve pared the GTD system down to its essential components, and translated it into a paper system that is easy to incorporate into any existing system. For example, if you’re happy with your electronic calendar, you can keep using it, while trying out the sticky-note GTD approach for your “To Do” lists. I hope you like it, and I hope you’ll give it a try!

UPDATE 1

Depending on the level of your interest in GTD, you can also add a page of “Someday/Maybe” and “Waiting For” items.

After a year or so of working with this system, I have refined it a bit.

Initially, I had a page for monthly actions, and I would move the stickies from the “To Do” to “Done” columns each month, and then “reset” the list at the beginning of each month. This was okay, but I found it lacking in a couple of areas: first of all, many repeated actions need to be done quarterly, not monthly, and I didn’t have a way of tracking them; secondly, I wasn’t always confident that I had reset the list properly, because I didn’t have an easy way of seeing when I had actually done whatever it was I needed to do (e.g. paid my credit card bill).

The answer to this problem came to me in, of all places, a men’s room. You may have noticed that, in some public bathrooms, the employees leave a clipboard with a list of tasks (e.g. “refill soap,” “mop floor,” “scrub urinals,” etc.) and they are supposed to fill in the time or date that each task is completed. That format struck me as a brilliantly simple solution to the problem of repeated tasks. How old are the windshield wipers on my wife’s car? Did I give the dog his flea meds last month?

Moving from a “binary” sticky-note system, in which tasks are either done or not-done, to a more comprehensive approach that tells me not only whether I did something, but when I did it, has freed up a lot of mental energy for me.

Unlike the “Next Action” lists, these “Periodic Actions” sheets do fill up eventually. Since I go through at least one notebook per year, I set up a grid that allows me to record roughly a year’s worth of dates. I separated the actions into monthly and quarterly lists, and gave each one a two-page spread in my notebook.

Since I don’t have an excessive number of quarterly actions, I used the space at the bottom of the page to record very infrequent actions (such as when I bought new tires), as well as easily-forgotten information that I only need every once in a while (e.g. what size the AC filter in the house is, what kind of bags our vacuum cleaner takes, etc.). This way, I have that information at my fingertips, whenever I need it.

This also allowed me to expand my “Next Action” space to a full two-page spread as well. (I confess, I sometimes ran out of space for stickies on my one-page design).

The design is quite simple, so you may want to tweak it to your own aesthetic sensibilities, but here is a PDF version of my layout, with blank spaces for writing in your own actions. I hope you find it as useful as I do!
Click here to download the PDF for your own use.

UPDATE 2

Keeping track of past projects & ideas is a challenge, since there’s no “search” function on a notebook.

The imperfect solution I’ve settled on is this: once I’ve finished a notebook, I go back through it, looking for anything that still strikes me as interesting, important or unfinished. When I find something, I use an index tab (those yellow, plastic sticky tabs that are sold right next to the paper ones) to physically bookmark it. I also have an “ideas” page at the back of my current notebook where I keep an ongoing list of things I want to purse further, and a “remember” page where I keep track of things that I’ve figured out and don’t want to forget.


20 Replies to “Unplugged Organization: The Sticky-Note GTD System”

  1. I LOVE your Idea! Your system seems well thought out and very user friendly. I plan on doing it right now…Thanks for your Creativity 🙂

  2. Thanks! I’ve been struggling –unsuccessfully– to balance a computer-based GTD system and the paper notes I carry daily. It hasn’t been working well. Your ideas have convinced me to return to the simpler world of paper. You never have to reboot a sticky note.

  3. Ummmm…. so simple it feels like something is missing but I can’t find anything wrong with it. That is really brilliant! For so long I have tried to figure out a way to have the ability to easily move things around that you get with an electronic system, but have the quick, simple intuitive feel of paper. You’ve done it! Awesome and thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thanks for the compliment! Funny you mention something missing … After a year of this system, I DID figure out something that’s missing, and I added it in. I’ll update this post soon, but to save you the suspense, I’ll tell you what it is: another sheet of “Periodic Actions” … Instead of the monthly page of “To Do” and “Done” columns, I simply write in the date that I accomplished something (e.g. “Pay Visa card bill”). That way, if I need to look back and figure out when I paid the July bill, I have that info. That’s as opposed to a post-it note that is either on or off, and doesn’t actually tell me when I did something in the past.

  4. I love this idea, and I’ve always loved the tactile “toy factor” of a small notebook with bright colored sticky notes or colored pens. One suggestion- what would you do if you wanted to save an archive of your projects? That would be difficult with a book I think. Perhaps one could take photos/scans of the pages each week, so you remember what you’ve done.

    Great ideas- thanks!

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I agree that keeping track of past projects & ideas is a challenge, since there’s no “search” function on a notebook.

      The imperfect solution I’ve settled on is this: once I’ve finished a notebook, I go back through it, looking for anything that still strikes me as interesting, important or unfinished. When I find something, I use an index tab (those yellow, plastic sticky tabs that are sold right next to the paper ones) to physically bookmark it. I also have an “ideas” page at the back of my current notebook where I keep an ongoing list of things I want to purse further, and a “remember” page where I keep track of things that I’ve figured out and don’t want to forget.

  5. Thank you so much for this idea. I ended up printing my letter size paper and then laminating them and putting them in a binder. I’m weird and I can’t stand a messy list with cross offs to go through to get to what your looking for, so this was just what I was looking for. Thanks.

  6. Absolutely brilliant and well documented. I can’t thank you enough for sharing, this is just what I was missing. I HATE writing things more then once, and having to scan back in my notebook to find stuff. This is like a dashboard, with all you need to do right in front of you. I am going to give this a shot. By the way is see the programmers in my office doing a similar thing with sticky notes on whiteboards to track were a certain code segment is. Todo testing done etc.

    jason

    1. Thanks, Chrissey! I just checked out your site. Very cool! I’m going to have to read up on YOUR system now. : )

  7. Although your layout is a little different, this is exactly the system I chose to adopt! I like that the sticky notes can be moved around and, as you mentioned, stacked.

    I was using larger sticky notes, though, which take up unnecessary space. Are you using flags? (I couldn’t find any that weren’t plastic-y.) Or are you cutting up larger sticky notes?

  8. I really like your paper-based approach to implementing GTD. After trying most softwares available, I have now also settled for a post-it based implementation as I combine GTD with Personal Kanban. In my office, I use a Personal Kanban board with stickies on a wall, which I can transport in a signature book, when I am on the move. If this is of interest, I have written a few blog post on this approach, which are available here: http://www.pascalvenier.com/en/?p=3262 and http://www.pascalvenier.com/en/?p=4524.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Pascal. I had not heard of the Kanban approach. I like it! The idea of a “Backlog” category is a nice staging area for tasks that aren’t immediate next actions. I often find myself resisting moving actions to “someday/maybe,” because I feel like it’s giving up, but I’ll have certain actions on my “next actions” list for months, which clutters up my system and my mind. “Backlog” looks like a very elegant solution to that problem, and one that I’m going to try immediately!

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  10. I Believe the information given was very helpful and not only that but the idea of this entire portion really helped me out. I didn’t really understand the curriculum until I read a couple of the comments above mine. Knowing that the stick notes are here to help and literally a click away it’s nice to have them. I am definitely going to use this potion from now on. Maybe keep using it after I graduate. But I am very glad i found this and now i get to use it whenever.

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