There are a lot of elegant tools for your OS and online that help you keep track of all your commitments, projects, tasks, goals, checklists, etc. Each of them have their own set of awesome features as well as their weaknesses.
I remember around a year ago when I was lost in the sea of productivity applications (if you have been there yourself, I totally feel for you). This mostly happened because I would find an app that I would like a lot and then find one or two things that it just couldn’t handle in my workflow. Because of that I played around with a ton of productivity applications and wasted a lot of my time procrastinating on projects.
Here is what I found
There is no perfect productivity, todo list, or Getting Things Done application for everyone.
But wait, before you leave and go Google something like “best GTD app -lifehack.org”, I have to tell you that there is one tool that led me to find a productivity application that worked perfect for me.
My travels through the sea of endless list making apps led me back to where I started my journey with productivity and Getting Things Done: pen and paper.
Why it works
There are a lot of things that paper doesn’t have that digital tools do including ubiquitous search, automated repeats, nesting of tasks, quickly changing lists and due dates, reminders, etc. But it does have one thing over digital tools that makes it one of the best ways to start being productive; unlimited flexibility.
If I want to take a note about a certain task in a digital tool, I have to invoke some sort of option in the system to say that I want to make that note. I type the note, and if the system is good, it will save it automatically. Otherwise I have to tell it to save the note about the task.
With paper and pen, I locate the task and write something near it. Or, hell, even on top of it if I want.
Paper planners work because they are flexible and with that flexibility eventually comes an awareness of how you work your productivity system, not how it works you.
There is nothing to learn really (that is if you aren’t implementing GTD or some other productivity system) and you can start with the tool immediately.
This doesn’t have to be permanent
I was so against using paper after using digital tools for a number of years. But what it came down to was that I needed to re-learn how to create and use a system. Paper is awesome for this because it helps you identify precisely what you need (as well as the things you don’t need at all) and helps you concentrate more on organizing and checking things off of your todo lists rather than figure out the exact taxonomy for your project on saving the world.
When you fiddle with your tools you aren’t saving the world, you are fiddling.
As you gain a better understanding of what your tools need to do to facilitate your workflow, you can start to see which digital systems can match that feature specification.
Transitioning from paper to digital
Now that you have figured out what you need in a tool and what you don’t at all need in your productivity system, you can start your search for a digital tool and transition to it. That is if you want to.
I have met a lot of people that are just as, if not more productive with a paper and pen than I am with OmniFocus on my two Macs, iPhone, and iPad. I believe that it has a lot to do with them being very intimate and close with their system, where as a digital tool can feel somewhat sterile and binary.
The easiest way to transition is to start dumping your paper planner’s contents straight into your new tool and set it up relatively close to what already have. If you use a bunch of different lists for each area that you do your work in (contexts) and also a list of all your projects and reference materials, make sure that your desired digital tool can handle it.
Slow down to speed up
Paper may not be the most powerful productivity tool you can get your hands on, but it sure will show you exactly what you need and don’t need in a productivity system to make it work for you.
I spent a good 3 months working with a paper planner through college and a full time job at the same time. It was annoying to have to rewrite things every once in a while, but it made me realize exactly what I needed in a productivity tool and helped me stop spinning my wheels trying to find the perfect digital tool.
Sometimes we have to use the most basic tools, understand how are productivity system is supposed to work, and then make it work with a decent digital tool that fits our needs.
If you are roaming around in the digital todo list and productivity tool jungle, give yourself a break, grab a crappy notebook and start getting some work done.