Creating a perfect productivity system using pen & paper

Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing my face (and the backdrop of books behind it) on a BlueJeans call will testify to my love of books. I’m often unapologetically thrusting new reads or interesting articles toward my computer camera or posting out books to those I think will enjoy or benefit from them.

I enjoy the tangibility of reading a physical. As an article in the Scientific American beautifully put it, “In most cases, paper books have more obvious topography than onscreen text. An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders. One can even feel the thickness of the pages read in one hand and pages to be read in the other. Turning the pages of a paper book is like leaving one footprint after another on the trail—there’s a rhythm to it and a visible record of how far one has travelled. All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.”

I suppose this ‘easy to navigate’ arrangement is what makes even the most digitally-minded of us find comfort in pulling out a pen and paper to ‘sort out the things in our head’.

When it comes to planning new projects, organising my thoughts, and navigating particularly busy times in my life I am a slave to the handwritten ‘brain dump’ before subsequently becoming a slave to the process of digital – transferring notes and lists to Trello via Slack and Zapier so they are easy to recall later.

Surrounding me as I write are a stack of books, my forever-in-motion line of hand scrawled post it notes, my computer, a smartphone, a fancy new microphone to better my audio for Rambling On videos and my cat, Holly (she doesn’t have much to do with this article but is a predictable part of my office scene). I suppose the picture I’m trying to paint is that whilst I am by no means a luddite, pen and paper still play a very important part in my planning and sorting process.

Building a productivity system

I recently read an article from Zapier – an integration software company of whom I’m a big fan – in which the author discusses how to build the perfect productivity system to help connect back to the physical world.  Here were some of the top tips on knowing when pen and paper might trump (or indeed aid) digital productivity processes…

Take paper notes during video meetings – then digitalise them (or vice versa)

Sanne Stevens, Team Lead for Zapier’s Core Support team, switches between paper and digital task management seamlessly. “I generally take notes on paper to then organize them digitally after,” she said, before adding that she also goes the other way. “Other times, I print out my to-do list and then write on it or strikethrough tasks manually—makes it feel real.”

It’s something worth keeping in mind: using paper doesn’t mean you can’t use to-do list apps and vice versa. You can (and should!) use both.

Brain dump on paper

To do list getting out of hand? Need to compartmentalise your work/life rhythm? Writing things down in specific lists enables you to sort your thoughts in whichever way feels most natural to you. Start with a ‘work’ and ‘life’ column, or break things down further under projects or completion dates.

Hannah Herman, Zapier’s copywriter commented “I have used a physical, handwritten to-do list for a long time, it just sort of cements things in my brain better.” Hannah’s setup involves a specific planner, where each two-page spread has one page with the weekly calendar layout and one page of lined paper.  Hannah noted that she’s tested a lot of to-do apps in her time, and one thing that always bugs her is balancing tasks with a specific due date with tasks she can accomplish whenever. Most apps make it easy to pay attention to one or the other—few are great for doing both. This paper system does that flawlessly.

Another simple idea from Zapier’s article was to keep a stack of cards on your workstation, when an idea arises that attempts to lure you away from your current work, simply jot it down and leave it be. Then you can come back to all the ideas later, flesh them out and organise them into your workflow.

Make a sticky note Kanban board

A sticky note on your laptop is about the simplest approach to task management you can imagine, which is exactly why it works so well for some people. I use sticky notes every day for my etc work, but I love the idea of taking them one step further by creating a Kanban board – something that could be especially helpful in an office environment.

Heather Winter, Project Manager at Zapier, has two: one for work, one for home projects. New tasks are added to the To Do column, then moved to In Progress when work begins, then ultimately moved to Done. It’s a great example of how paper can make the intangible (a series of tasks) feel tangible (physical pieces of paper stuck to the wall). There’s also something very satisfying about the idea of tasks moving from one section of the board to another.

For those of you who already use pen and paper, the above might simply reinforce your already productive practices, but if you’ve been trying to do all your planning on screen, consider liberating yourself with some pen and paper planning. You can write wherever you want, switch from words to drawings in an instant, and generally not worry about structure.


On another note, my email Rambling On is now coming out weekly as a shorter mailing with just three things inside; article one will be my own take on something relevant to agency leaders/founders, article two, a curated piece from someone much cleverer than me and article three, a curious little nugget that will bring you joy, wonder or simply an insight into something you’ve never considered. If you’d like to sign up, you can do so, here.




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