Look, I’m all for just about anything that will help me save time or be more organized. I assure you I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to find the perfect productivity system to stay on top of all the things I have to do every day. For a long time, I’ve been convinced that there’s a productivity app or tool that can help me get ideas out of my brain and keep them organized long enough that they actually stand a chance of becoming a real thing.
So, I’ve tried out apps like Things and Evernote and OmniFocus. All of those are really powerful tools, but none of them worked quite the way my brain did. Except, and this is a real problem for people, the search for the perfect productivity app might be the biggest barrier to actually, well, being productive. In fact, I often found myself spending so much time in pursuit of the best productivity tool, I stopped actually being, well, productive.
Finding the perfect productivity app became a pursuit all of its own, which is a bad place to be for someone who already has a todo list that feels like its longer than what I can accomplish in a lifetime. Finally, however, I think I’ve found something that works–a piece of paper.
I know that sounds anticlimactic, but I’m being sincere so hear me out. In fact, there’s something about pen and paper that works so much better for me than just about anything else.
Every day, I write out the list of things I need to accomplish in a notebook. I’m currently using a Moleskin notebook with grid pages. There’s nothing particularly special about the brand of notebook, though I do like having the grid pages. In addition to being able to write notes, the grid makes it easy for me to create different sections for different things I’m working on.
If you’re at all like me, there are three reasons that paper is the most powerful productivity tool I’ve ever used.
One of the reasons is that writing out a list of todos is mechanical. If I write down something I have to do, my brain processes it differently as my hand moves across the page leaving behind words and ideas. The physical act of writing on paper actually helps me think in a way that’s different from typing on my iPhone or laptop.
Of course, writing things out takes longer than doing it in an app, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Paper makes you slow down, and that’s a good thing. I know that seems counterintuitive, but it’s actually a bigger deal than you might think. In the same way that using paper is mechanical, it also forces you to be intentional about what you’re writing. That increased amount of time helps me to focus and prioritize things.
A Blank Page
The final reason paper works so well for me is that it can be whatever I need it to be, without getting in the way. A blank page in a notebook can hold ideas or todo lists or sketches. Even apps that try to do all of those things don’t do it well.
Paper, however, has no agenda on its own, it just sits there waiting for you to pour out your ideas. It has no software engineer balancing feature requests, making decisions that impose structure that might not work the same way your brain does.
Over time, as you do, you’ll figure out a process that works best for the way you think and organize your thoughts. When you do, you can transfer that process to paper.
A Hybrid Approach
Finally, I will say this in defense of productivity apps like Things–which I actually do use. Generally, I collect things I need to do throughout the day into Things since I almost always have my iPhone with me. I’m terrible at remembering things, so it helps me to get them out of my head as quickly as possible.
I don’t always have my notebook with me, but it’s easy enough to add something to the Inbox in Things. Then, before my day is over, I look through the list and prioritize things for the next day, writing them out on paper. This has worked for me really well, and it has reduced the amount of stress I experience around the number of things I have to accomplish every day.
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