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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

In Defense of a Paper To-Do List (and How to Do it Right)

I know there are a million and one different ways to manage your daily tasks using technology. And while I usually have a healthy appreciation for digital solutions, I have always been someone who manages my to-do list with good old pen and paper. Not only does it help me be really efficient during my busy business school days, prioritize my tasks, and work even when I don’t have cell data, but there is literally nothing more satisfying than crossing a completed task off of an actual to-do list.

If you’ve had trouble finding an organization system that works for you, or you just want to try shedding the digital clutter and getting back to the basics, then I’d recommend giving this method a shot! Here’s how to do it.

1. Get a Real, Hard Copy Planner

Obviously, the first step in doing this is getting the tools that work for you. It’s important to use a hard copy planner that matches your organizational and work style. For example, I use Poppin planners because they display a weekly schedule on the left and lined paper on the right, they fit in my purse, and they’re pretty cheap.

I like seeing the entire week on one page, but if you like a different type of view, check out Moleskine, which has a ton of different formats, or—if you want to get analog with your shopping, too—head to your local Barnes & Noble and browse through its huge selection until you find the right fit.

2. List All of Your Top Commitments for the Week

I always start by listing out all of the major obligations I have on my weekly schedule, just so I can get a sense of what I will need to plan around. I like to include both personal and professional tasks and events to really get a full picture for the week.

For example, if I have to prepare for a big meeting on Wednesday but have to stop working at 6 PM on Tuesday to attend a birthday dinner, then I will know that I’ll likely have to work late on Monday.

3. Write Out and Prioritize Your Tasks

Once I’ve started to fill in the calendar with my major commitments, I divide the paper side of my planner into four boxes, with the upper right box representing important/non-urgent tasks, the upper left representing important/urgent tasks, and the bottom two boxes representing unimportant/non-urgent and unimportant/urgent tasks.

Then, I write out all of the tasks I need to complete for the week, making sure to list them in their corresponding box. For example, “pay credit card bill” always goes in the important/urgent box, while “buy winter coat” is in important/non-urgent.

This functions as a baked-in prioritization system, because it forces me to identify what I need to be working on and when.

It is also crucial for calling out the tasks that are unimportant/urgent, which I often will prioritize above important, long-term items if I’m not careful. For example, I am working on three long-term research papers this semester, which never seem quite as pressing as something due tomorrow and could easily get lost in the noise of a full to-do list. This prioritization system forces me to acknowledge working on the papers as important and start writing them in advance.

4. Make a Daily Schedule (and Include Down Time)

All of this weekly planning is nice, but how does this help me figure out what to actually do on a given day? Every morning, I pull out a blank piece of paper (I use white printer paper, but you could also get a notebook if you wanted to class the process up a bit) and do three things.

First, I write out the times of the day from 8 AM-11 PM in 30-minute increments and put in any meetings, classes, and personal commitments I have. Then, I look at my weekly planner and pull out the tasks I want to complete that day, trying to make sure to pull at least one item from each of my four boxes. Finally, I slot all of the tasks into my calendar, filling in the time around the meetings.

Since tasks usually take longer to complete in practice, my rule of thumb is to budget 1.5 times the amount of time I think I will need, just to make sure I can fit everything in. I also always make sure to build in down time in the early evening and an hour to go to the gym, both of which I need to maintain my sanity!

5. Cross Things Off

This is my favorite part of the process: crossing tasks off when I finish them. I love using colored pens, just to make things a little more fun. I typically keep track on my daily schedule and then cross all items off of my weekly to-do list at the end of each day.

6. Carry Over Uncompleted Items

At the end of the week, it’s important to make sure any unfinished items get carried over to future weeks so that they don’t slip through the cracks. On Sunday night, I usually sit down with a red pen and cross out uncompleted items one at a time as I decide whether to “cancel” them or move them forward to future weeks. One of the beauties of a paper planner is that you can really push tasks you don’t have time for, because you can write them in wherever you want—I actually just moved my “holiday shopping” line to the first week of December because I know I won’t have time for it until then.

I know this process might sound complicated, but spending just 20 minutes per day on planning can help save you hours. I know I am especially prone to wasting short blocks (e.g., 30 minutes between classes) if I haven’t thought out what I want to do, but if I’ve already made my schedule, then I don’t have to think twice about what I’m supposed to be doing with my time.

Hope this helps you get rid of some decision fatigue, and get more stuff done.

Photo of planner courtesy of Shutterstock.