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Getting Things Done

Paper vs. Apps—The Tools in Your GTD® System

Dear David,

I can’t seem to get rid of my paper and pencil system. I love to write down lists, track things on sticky notes, and hoard notebooks and handouts from my meetings. In today’s world of fancy phone apps and calendaring systems, I feel a bit archaic. Am I doing it wrong if I stick to my paper and pencil way of getting things done? It hasn’t let me down yet.

Low-Tech Scribe

Dear Low-Tech,

There is absolutely nothing wrong with your tools, nor with you. As a matter of fact, paper, in many cases for many people, works better than digital media. I know quite a few tech-savvy people who have gone back to using paper-based systems—especially those who have attention issues or are simply too impatient to deal with all the digital “clicks” necessary to input or access reminders in your phone or computer.

Physical tools like pen and paper also give us a kinesthetic experience that many find more satisfying than typing or texting. The touch and feel of pen, pencil, paper, sticky notes, and notebooks does foster a kind of magical quality in our thinking as we use them. And the more attractive our tools, the more functional they will be.

Additionally, a paper planner or notebook, properly used and organized, can actually give you a more comprehensive, quick overview and gestalt of your multi-level commitments than a combination of software applications. I used an elegant notebook organizer for fifteen years, for note-taking, creative thinking, calendar and action reminders, and functional portable reference material. Though I have transitioned to digital tools, I still miss that compact, coordinated, leather-encased tool. Tech has not been able to replicate that for me, in that way, as much as I would like it to.

I did switch to digital for organizing lists and some note taking when the Palm Pilot debuted in the 1990’s. Since then, I’ve primarily stuck to software apps for much of what I need to manage and access. Given the nature of my work, my collaboration with others, and the integration of things like email, calendar, and digital information I can easily cut and paste, high-tech won out as my medium of choice. But it does have its limitations.

I still use pen and paper for capturing random thoughts I’d like to address later (I’ve carried a notepad in my pocket wallet for thirty-five years and I’ll never give it up!). I also always keep a small notepad and pen at my desk. I would find it absurdly inefficient to have to unlock my smartphone to capture a random idea or input. My wife and I maintain a running notecard in the kitchen to remind ourselves of items we need to get at the market.

That said, a paper-based environment of inputs and note-taking can be as ineffective as anything else! I have spent thousands of hours hand-holding sophisticated executives as they plow through the notebooks, sticky-notes, random meeting notes, printed reports, receipts, and scraps of paper that have accumulated and constipated their environments and their heads. If your system is completely paper-based, you still need to apply the rigor it takes to distinguish between simply capturing ideas on paper to clarifying and listing these inputs. If you’ve taken meeting notes or thoughts in a journal or notebook, and haven’t curated them to distinguish what needs to be kept as reference, what requires action to be taken, and what can be simply tossed (and rewritten and reorganized in that way), then the whole situation will be quite pressured and sub-optimal.

As long as you have discrete categories into which to channel your handwritten notes (random inputs, reminders of projects and specific actions to take, reference material, etc.), it can function as a self-management system as well as any other.

Here’s a warning: if you’re avoiding going digital and sticking with your low-tech tools because you’re uncomfortable and unfamiliar with that world, watch out. Our world is becoming increasingly digital. Given your lifestyle and situation, it may not make that much difference to you. Just pay attention to what you need to manage and take care of and what the optimal way to deal with that might be. Don’t stick with what you’re doing because you’re not willing to explore something that might be more effective. But, if you’re sufficiently digitally savvy and decide to stick with a paper-based system, good for you.

Obviously, there is no perfect set of tools—each component has an upside and a downside. There are only excellent ways to use whatever tools you choose to use.

Best of luck,

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5 thoughts on “Paper vs. Apps—The Tools in Your GTD® System”

  1. Ed

    Your reply misses one important aspect of their choice. That is, what signal do you want to send to the world. Like it or not others will be seeing what you do. Do you want to say “I prefer the old stuff”? The message will be sent regardless of whether you say it out loud. Old school ways are noticed, especially when the rest of the world moves on.

  2. Eithne S.

    There is one more reason you didn’t mention as to why a paper-based system works better for some people (like me). That is our learning styles are more tactile. It is not just a more satisfying experience, it engages the brain in a different (and for me more effective) way than typing. And I type all day long in my job.

  3. Anna V

    What a beautiful to respond to this question. I use many digital resources in my life including Outlook and Google Calendar, OneNote, Google Keep and many others but then I discovered the “analog” method called a Bullet Journal that was developed to capture all the sticky notes and paper into one comprehensive book (and the index system is brilliant!). There are groups on Facebook dedicated to the use of this type of system (full of more than 100,000 people). So “Low Tech” should certainly not feel left behind by choosing to use a notebook. It’s like you said, if it’s just to take notes with no system to make those notes easy to reference later, then it could be a problem, otherwise, all the more power to you! Also, I totally agree about the tactile connection of putting pen to paper, somehow it can actually help a person internalize what they write and maybe even remember it later.

  4. Jeff Grigg

    There are many cases where paper is the best tool for the job. There is a lot to be said for using paper, instead of the fancy impressive-looking electronic toys and software applications / programs.

    I am a professional software developer, and as I look around on my desk right at this moment, I see my paper Day Timer calendar, which I use for all my personal and professional scheduling. And I have a number of 3×5″ cards and papers, with notes on what I am working on today. And a folio with an 8 1/2 x 11″ lined pad of paper, which I take to all meetings. This is not a matter of expressing my personal eccentricities. I use these manual paper tools because they are more effective, for these uses, than the available electronic tools.

    You may be aware that there is this thing called “agile software development.” What is typically not so visible, to outsiders, is that using pen and paper over computerized tools is a common approach used by many agile teams. Generally, the most agile teams will prefer paper over electronic tools, whenever it is feasible to do so. Online tools are used when teams are distributed, and so cannot share the advantages of face-to-face interaction in a single physical location. We have discussed this for years, and tried and compared various options. Generally, pen and paper are best for individuals and co-located teams. Online shared database tools are typically needed for distributed teams, or if visibility or reporting statistics are needed by external stakeholders.

    Right at the moment, I have several Rally windows open in my browser. This is our corporate standard for project tracking, and it is quite useful for coordinating work with our distributed teams. With my current distributed team, we typically use “Fun Retro” and “planIT poker” online tools in our retrospective and planning meetings. Coordinating physical paper across continental boundaries is impractical.

    Do not be overly concerned that you may look bad or be falling behind the times if you use pen and paper to track your work. In many cases, these are the most effective tools for this job. Be open to using automated tools, in those cases where they meet your particular needs. But don’t use them when pen and paper is more effective.

  5. Michelle

    One of the strategies I appreciate from GTD is capturing all the to dos in a central location. I love my pen and paper but was doing a terrible job capturing action items from the various projects and aspects of my life in an organized, compact way.
    I just purchased a tablet that supports handwriting with an electronic stylus. Found an app that allows me to draw, write, type notes and file them in defined folders. I can save my notes as PDFs and share via email, upload and store them in the cloud, and access them via other devices.
    I was concerned about making the switch, but find that I am loving the new system. I feel more organized and am enjoying learning how to use new technology.

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