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!
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.
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.