All posts by David

Getting Things Done QA

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,