Why I use pen and paper to get things done

Apr 21, 2020 #productivity

I use a simple pen / paper based setup to keep track of TODOs and events. This is something that I started using about two years ago, originally starting out with a Bullet Journal but then slowly making changes over time to personalize it to my own workflow. At this point, I don't think there's any Bullet Journal left in there anymore. Regardless, I'm quite happy with what I have.

Prior to having this setup, I was using a mix of Remember The Milk (to keep track of TODOs), and Dynalist (to store notes). On and off I tried using a bunch of other productivity apps. I actually liked Todoist much more, but the freeloader in me kept pushing me back to using RTM.

Anyway, since productivity is such a hotly debated topic, I'm not going to claim that analog systems are universally a better choice. I'll instead list out the reasons why I think they work better for me.

Simplicity

The first and probably the strongest reason is just how simple things in this world are. I don't think it gets any more simpler than having just a pen and an empty notebook to work with. There are no websites to open or mobile apps to install, no passwords to manage, no backups to worry about, no notifications, nothing. It's just you, what's on your mind, and the notebook.

I strongly believe there's something sublime about writing things down. Maybe the thousands of years that we've been writing things down do outweigh the tens that we've been typing things into computers. Maybe it's just pure evolution at work here. Whatever the reason is, I personally feel better about writing something down on paper as compared to entering it digitally.

It does take a little bit of creativity to get things going though. When you're staring at an empty notebook with a pen in your hand, it can be that you have no idea where to start. It certainly was the case for me. But luckily there are plenty of resources online on how to get started.

For instance, this article lists the five most popular analog productivity methods. If this article strikes a chord, I would recommend you to pick one method out of those five, but don't feel that you need to be religious about it. If you pick, say Strikethru, as a starting point, format your notebook the way they recommend. And at any point if you wish that the method would suggest X instead of Y, just improvise to adapt things to your own workflow.

Flexibility

Notebooks are infinitely flexible. Independent of what organizational format you pick, you always have the option of customizing things the way you want. Don't like the future log in Bullet Journal? Ditch it! Don't like the Strikethru vaults? There's no one stopping you from replacing it with something else of your liking.

Digital TODO list apps can also be flexible, but not as much. I think one of the biggest requirement for any app to be successful is that it has to focus on one specific group of people and tailor the entire experience around them. If you build an app that intends to make everyone happy, chances are high that you'll end up making no one happy.

The same logic applies to TODO apps as well. I feel Todoist comes extremely close to solving 98% of all use cases. But even Todoist, I feel, leaves a few things out from what I imagine my ideal solution looks like.

An important consequence of this is that there's always going to be a chance that a specific app doesn't work for you. Maybe the exact feature you want isn't there. Or that the terminology is slightly confusing. Whatever it might be. And changing the app is not under your control.

Notebooks, on the other hand, can be bent any way you like. You can fix all the "bugs" and implement any "feature" you want. The only limit really is your imagination.

Reduced screen time

We know that staring at screens is ruining our health. Not only does it lead to detrimental effects on the eyes, spending more time in front of screens has also been linked to other things like sleep disorders.

It so happens that I write software to make a living. This means spending all day every day sitting / standing in front of a screen.

This is something I'd like to minimize. I've already removed as many non-essential apps as I could from my phone. I'm off of most of the social media platforms. And I've disabled all notifications on my phone except for instant messaging and emails. So installing an app that increases my screen time to more than what it is right now would run counter-productive to this "reduce screen-time" initiative.

Besides, I review TODO items and notes multiple times during the day. Most days this is right before I start the day and just before I go to bed at night. But occasionally it's also a few times during the day just to keep an eye on things. Having to perform all these activities on my phone and / or the laptop would increase my screen time by quite a bit.

So this was another major reason why I moved to paper. After having shifted this "organizational" aspect to a pen / paper based setup, I noticed that this huge chunk of work that I used to do in front of screens was suddenly not there anymore. That right there meant I could remove two apps from my phone and could unpin two tabs on my browser. In an attention-driven economy, this was huge.

I'm not trying to claim that you should avoid digital solutions at all costs. It certainly is possible to organize everything digitally and put limits on your screen time to still maintain a healthy lifestyle. At the same time, I do believe that if it's possible to achieve a given objective either digitally or using analog methods, with no difference in the final result, I think I would personally prefer the analog way. YMMV though.

Strong(est) data privacy

Data privacy, especially as of 2020, is huge. And a large part of why data privacy is huge is because public awareness on this topic has increased. Partially because there have been a few large scale data leaks over the past years. But partially also because a lot of online service providers have been caught selling personal user data to advertising companies to make money.

I consider my TODO list items and notes to be quite personal. So I've always had a slight discomfort storing that information under someone else's control. Sure, there are data privacy rules and regulations in place. But if past experience is any measure, online providers default more often than you'd think. This is why the paranoid in me chooses to ignore all that and instead focus on the potential failure modes.

With a notebook, that's not an issue anymore. All my data lives on a physical notebook that is with me most of the time. There is no online storage (or online footprints in general) that I need to worry about. And at the beginning of every year in the first week of January, I copy everything over from the older notebook to the newer one, discarding the older one completely. I literally take the notebook apart into pieces and throw the individual pages into a shredder.

I'm probably coming across as a nut-case here and you most likely won't go to that extent. But like I mentioned before, I write a lot of stuff in my notebooks which I then look back at and feel super embarassed about. Destroying older planners and notes gives me the peace of mind that no one is going to find out that one super embarassing Britney Spears song I wrote I liked at some point.

Distraction-free

I currently use a smartphone which, thanks to Apple having introduced the iPhone in 2007, allows installing thousands of apps that can distract you in a million different ways. A lot of these apps are usually clients for online service providers. The moment you sign up, in most cases those services (especially the free ones) try to bring you back to the app to increase the "user time spent inside the app". This is done mostly using periodic emails or push notifications.

At some point, I got fed up of all these notifications and disabled most of the push notifications and unsubsribed myself from as many email lists as possible. And now that I've been on this setup for quite some time, I notice a tiny little dose of anxiety hit my mind every single time I see a notification. That red badge next to the app icon on my phone home screen prompts me to do something. What it's asking me to do depends on the app and may or may not be important. Regardless, it invokes anxiety.

I feel this is a problem with the present-day tech ecosystem in general. In the quest to make money by increasing "user retention" by bringing users back constantly through sending notifications, we've collectively forgotten about the negative and long term health effects of notifications. Once your mind is trained to respond to them, it's extremely difficult to get off of it.

A notebook gives me a distraction-free environment to think and organize what's in my head. It does not ring, doesn't send me any emails or push notifications, and doesn't optimize for the time I spend using it. It's a simple and dumb medium that lets me focus on getting stuff done. And I really like that.


Productivity is something quite personal. Everyone has a different taste. It's much like the Emacs vs Vim debate. But unlike how in the editor wars I always claim that Vim is better 🙃, I'm not going to claim that my method of getting stuff done is better than yours.

At the end of the day, the more important thing is that we're productive. The fact that you're using analog methods or digital ones is mostly irrelevant.

I do believe though that with the hundreds (if not thousands) of productivity apps available to us at one click, from time to time it also makes sense to make the case for using analog setups. I hope that this article did a reasonable job of doing that!