How to Manage Your Task Lists on Paper

Imagine, using paper to organize and manage your to-do lists! Yes, it's possible - and may actually work even better than any electronic system. Get-It-Done Guy explains how to use a simple notebook to easily keep track of your lists.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #290

Multiple Lists Still Go in One Book

That works fine for two lists. But some task management systems, like David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, requires many lists: one for each physical location or project.

You’ll still keep one, easy-to-carry master notebook, ready to jump into action at any time. That match.com date might be really boring, and there’s a lot of time to kill between the appetizer and the main entree.

Each page is now be devoted to a single task list. “Work,” “Home,” “Zombie Breeding Camp,” and so on. Give each page a header that makes it clear which list that page is part of. Enter tasks on the appropriate page. “Order formaldehyde preservation tanks” goes on the “Zombie Breeding Camp” page. When a page fills up, find the next blank page, write the list name at the top, and continue adding tasks.

The Secret to Keeping it Untangled

Now everything’s in one place, but finding it is hard; the different lists are all mixed up throughout the notebook.

Ancient paper history comes to the rescue with an awesome idea: the table of contents. Make your notebook’s first page a table of contents. List your task lists there. When you start a new page for a list, jot the page number on your table of contents. Your table of contents page will end up with the line Zombie Breeding Camp, 4–7, 16, 23 showing that that task list is on pages 4, 5, 6, 7, 16, and 23.

I use a Moleskine large-size graph paper journal for my master list, and the pages aren’t numbered, so I write the page numbers by hand when using a new page.

Giving credit where it’s due: Using a table of contents for a to-do list comes from bulletjournal.com, a graphic designer’s explanation of how he uses a paper system to keep everything in one notebook.

Add Continuity Hints

Even a table of contents isn’t perfect. What if I’m reading page 16, and quickly want to see the rest of the Zombie Breeding Camp task list? I must flip back to the table of contents and then forward again, to page 23. What a hassle!

To keep things speeding along, when adding a new page to a list, at the bottom of the previous page I write "continued” and the page number where the list is continued. When I’m scanning page 16, I see at the bottom that it says "-> 23” and I know to jump right ahead to page 23 to continue reading the list.

Paper to-do lists are the shiznit. They really are. Keep one master list, and if you need two lists for home and work, keep them in the same notebook by flipping the notebook. If you need more than two lists in the same notebook, a table of contents will keep you sorted out, and “continued on” links at the bottom of each page will help you keep moving forward.

For more tips on how to work less and do more, check out Get-It-Done Guy's huge archive of free productivity content at quickanddirtytips.com/get-it-done-guy.

Notebook and pen and man covered in sticky notes images courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.