why I carry a paper to-do list

If you've read my work over the years, you've probably learned a few things about me:

  1. I lean into technology - a lot.
  2. I hate paper, and shoot for paperless whenever possible.
  3. I strive for efficiency - best results with the least amount of resources expended, wins.
  4. I'm a digital packrat and a backup fanatic; data loss is never an option.

And yet, with all this penchant for high-tech efficiency, and with dozens of to-do apps available, syncing seamlessly between phone, computer, and tablet, I've found the most success with a good old-fashioned paper to-do list.

It sounds a little like owning a solar farm to harness clean energy while driving an old rusted out pickup truck.


Why digital lists fail (for me)

I've used a number of digital lists over the years - Google Tasks, Toodledoo, Wunderlist, Astrid, GTasks, Evernote, Outlook, among others. I can't say I've tried them all, but over the course of the last 10 years or so I've gotten pretty familiar with a lot of them.

The trouble is I always seem to repeat a similar pattern:

  • Start out with a basic plan and some basic tasks.
  • It's easy to add tasks, and there's unlimited space, so I start adding more tasks and in more detail.
  • What? You can add notes to your tasks? Great - let's add some notes in there too.
  • Next I'll add in my repeating tasks - the things I do every day, week, month, etc.
  • Now my tasklist is getting pretty big; should I break it out into multiple lists? Maybe one for my writing endeavors, one for work, and one for my personal stuff...
  • Eventually my tasklist becomes a task in itself. I turn on my phone in the morning and immediately get overwhelmed by all the things I have to do today. And heaven forbid if I start to fall behind - next thing I know I have a whole screen full of red font "yelling" at me to catch up.
  • By now I'm a slave to my tasklist. I'm buried too deep to spend any time on creative and big-picture projects; instead I spend my days swinging away as furiously as possible, just trying to click the checkboxes or swipe the tasks off my screen.

Whew - that was overwhelming just to think about!

I'd rather have a to-do list which helps me stay on target, without being a bully.

My Paper To-Do List

Here is the method I've found the most consistent success with:

1.) Start by identifying my goals for the week.

On Sunday evening, I list out the things I want to accomplish over the course of the next week. I'm not committing myself to doing any particular task on any particular day, and I'm not listing out dozens of details. Just some big-picture goals - knowing that if I hit these goals, regardless of which day(s) they get done, I'm moving forward towards success.

 A semi-hypothetical weekly task list, marked up throughout the week.


A typical week might include goals for writing, exercise, networking/marketing, and family administration tasks.

Truth be told - since many weeks have a similar overall goal structure, I use a spreadsheet as a template and simply make some minor edits from week to week. Then I print out my weekly goals.

I can then mark progress, cross goals off, and/or make notes about them as the week progresses.

2.) Fold the page into eighths (3 folds)

Now the list is small and portable enough to carry with me, either in my pants pocket or my shirt pocket, depending on what I'm wearing.

All folded up and fully portable


3.) Daily tasks each day

This is where the paper list really shines.

Before I go to bed at night, I review my weekly goals to see where I've made progress and where I still need to put forth additional effort. Then I use one of the 8 sections on the back to write up my goals for the next day.

I'm careful to only add 4-6 tasks for each day. If I finish these and want to make additional progress, great. But it's also likely I'll have something (or many things) come up out of the blue which I'll have to attend to, so getting through this small list will be considered a success.

Each day gets its own square. Little by little, day by day, the week's goals get accomplished.


By the end of the week, I will have completed all my weekly goals. It doesn't matter which day I worked on which item, or whether I broke it out into several smaller chunks. They all get done, a little bit each day

Why my paper list works great

10 Reasons why my paper list works better than digital lists:

  1. Simplicity. It's a very lightweight system. I spend more time doing things and less time writing and managing tasks.
  2. Engagement. There is something powerful about writing my goals, and thinking about getting them done tomorrow, which isn't replicated by setting up recurring tasks in an app.
  3. Flexibility. Very easy to skip ahead, circle back, or divide and conquer. I can change font sizes, draw arrows, use circles, or make notes as necessary.
  4. Quick Access. If I have a weekly goal of doing 150 push-ups, and I knock out 25 during a tv commercial break, I can quickly and easily notate that I did 25. I don't have to spend time finding the right place to enter the date, or to partially complete a task. It's just done.
  5. Slow Entry. When writing out each day's tasks by hand, I tend to not "over-add", the way I do when typing up a digital list.
  6. Tracking Progress. Since my weekly goals set me up for success, I can see at a glance how I'm doing for the week - each day I have more items crossed off. I can tell on Wednesday, for example, whether I'm on target or if I need to push harder.
  7. Motivation. When my daily goals are simple, yet attainable, and my daily goals should allow me to hit my weekly goals, and my weekly goals should lead to success - it's very motivating to get my daily goals done.
  8. Portability. It's lightweight, doesn't need a battery, and can go anywhere. (except maybe the swimming pool, but my phone can't go swimming either.)
  9. WYSIWYG. I don't have to worry about formatting, or upgrading, or additional features, or platform mobility. My paper list always displays the right formatting, regardless of which smartphone I buy or where I'm working that day.
  10. Reminder that tech isn't always best. Sometimes, as cool as technology is, it isn't the best solution. Sometimes a larger laptop is more effective than a hyper-thin tablet, and driving to get a client's signature in person has a bigger impact than sending an email. In this case, paper beats digital.

Having a to-do list is a fact of life these days. There are simply too many things we have to get done during a day, and a dozen other things we need to remember.

Digital organization apps have a lot of appeal, but I've found more success, over longer time periods, with a simple sheet of paper.

- Chris Butterworth