Using a notebook as a task manager

I’m sometimes asked which app I use to manage my time, to-dos or plans. My answer is none, for the most part. I use a notebook, a real paper notebook.

Every morning I sit down at my desk, and turn my notebook to a fresh page. I’ll then spend 10 minutes copying out calendar events for the day, converting emails and my drafts inbox into tasks. Depending on the project I’ll login to whichever project management tool we’re using and copy those tasks too. In short I roughly follow the Bullet Journal methodology, combined with the core concepts of GTD (Getting Things Done) 1. At the risk of hyperbole, adopting both of those will change your productivity forever.

Throughout the day I will check off events and tasks as I complete them, and jot down notes and updates as I go.

All that is possible in a half-decent productivity app, like Things, but there’s a few reasons why I prefer a notebook.


Firstly, before the good stuff. There are downsides to a notebook. Firstly, paper is wasteful. Despite being recyclable it needs to be produced, packaged, and shipped before I buy it. I can try to reduce the carbon footprint by buying from a local manufacturer that prioritises reducing waste, but paper will never be as environmentally friendly as an app.

Much like a digital alternative a notebook can be lost or destroyed accidentally, it’s harder to back-up.

Unlike an app a notebook is difficult to search. I can make every effort to keep track of content with an index page, but I will not be able to recall a page using a single word or name. I tend to make my notebook the start of an idea rather than it’s final resting place, Notion is my preferred digital archive.

A notebook is not dynamic, it cannot be programmed to do things automatically, and I cannot access it when I forget to pick it up.

Zero-syntax rules

Task management and productivity apps will impose a default syntax or structure to get you started, some are more opinionated that others 2. While they are easy enough to configure the way you want, there is a learning curve. It can be difficult to introduce a new syntax or concept, plug-ins exist but those need to be found, installed, or even written from scratch.

With a notebook I can invent, bend, or break a syntax as fast as I can write. Which means I can get that idea out of my head before it fades away.

Mixed media

The flexibility of a notebook allows me to mix my task list with sketches, appointment cards, tickets, post-it notes, and other ephemera. A few pages can become a scratchpad, scrapbook, or a mood-board naturally over the course of a day, and even more detailed with time.

Digital alternatives tend to be minimal, dedicated to doing one thing well, which isn’t a complaint but sometimes an all-in-one solution is needed.

Writing improves my memory

I mentioned above that I copy information out of my digital tools into my notebook. This seems like a waste of time, but writing something down helps me to remember it 3. Writing down an event–like a meeting–helps me to combine the event itself with the things I need to do to prepare for it. For example, I find it easier to organise myself when I have a to-do to read a document before a meeting when the two things are listed next to one another.

Zero technology

I love and hate technology, it has formed a big part of my life so far, and it will do for the rest of it. But, it is nice to have a tool that does not have a screen, requires no internet connection, and is truly portable.

I can doodle in a notebook while sitting outside, or flying at 30,000ft and not have to think about keeping the internet connected. In a meeting the constant sound of typing can be seen as obnoxious, which is unlikely the case with a pen.

The emotional connection

There is a certain honesty and randomness to paper, which gives me a stronger emotional connection to it. Using a pen means mistakes must be crossed out—forming a rudimentary versioning system. I sometimes smudge things with my hands. My daughter will occasionally scribble on a page, much to my dismay. A sudden change of pen or legibility means I have hastily taken a note with little regard for my normal process.

Occasionally I will pick up an old notebook from the shelf and flick through it. It’s interesting to see a journey taking place, and to remind myself of my old ideas and projects. Each book is a snapshot of me and my work at a certain point in time.

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