Writing my to-do list for the day is a key part of my morning routine and essential to state setting and priming. Before I have a chance to get distracted by emails and other notifications vying for my attention I sit down with my morning coffee and write down the tasks I want to complete for the day.
I use elements from Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal to list out today’s tasks. Each task starts with a bullet point followed by a short description of the task. When completed the bullet point is crossed out so it changes from “•” to “×”. If I didn’t finish a task and I still consider it to be a valuable thing to do I move it to tomorrow’s list by replacing the bullet point with “>” indicating that the task has been deferred.
If the task is delegated or can be deleted from the list before starting, then it gets a nice, satisfying line through it. Using this system means that when reviewing my list at the end of the day I get a quick visual reference ensuring every bulleted task has been in some way and nothing slips through the net.
You can go deeper with Bullet Journalling using tools like the Ryder’s Future Log for planning goals for the month, but I found that in practice navigating between pages became more frustrating than helpful. I found the most value in the daily task management part of the system so I have no qualms about utilising only that part of the Bullet Journal methodology.
So why not software?
One of biggest advantages is where it falls short for me in managing daily tasks. Software is faster than pen and paper. It’s easy to create a new task and add it to your list, which makes it easy to fill your list with things to do without a chance to properly think through the value of each task. I have been through countless task manager and to-do list tools to find one that sticks but in the end, I have always come back to pen and paper.
Unlike a physical book, has to compete for your attention amongst other open apps, windows and browser tabs. I remember using a popular app based on the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology and thinking it was working for me as I logged numerous tasks rapidly and proceeded to get to work. However, the problem started as soon as I started working on the tasks I had just set myself. The app would be hidden under multiple windows and sometimes I would go for days before realising it was still open with old, irrelevant tasks (and some forgotten items).
Such apps allow you to set due dates and notifications, but I find they take me out of my current flow and I end up working the app rather than the app working for me. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you have to bend to fit the opinions of an app - what happens if you decide to change your to-do writing style or system? The software probably wants you to do it a certain way.
Why pen and paper?
The great thing about pen and paper is its inefficiency. It takes time to write the list, and that’s the beauty of it! Editing is clunky and it gets annoying when you have to rewrite tasks that you need to move from day to day. For that reason, it encourages taking time to write better, more realistic goals. is too forgiving in that regard, pen and paper hold you more accountable and it promotes thinking through big tasks and breaking them down into achievable subtasks that can be done today.
Using a good old fashioned notebook has the additional advantage of taking your eyes off the screen. That pause enforces a small step back and seeing the bigger picture. It’s therapeutic.