Task management with pen and paper

I have been making reference to my pen and paper driven Task Management system here and there since I started writing here. This is a first draft. I’m going to update this page as I change the system and the tools The text is a little bit rough, and I promise to polish it and re-work it as soon as I have the time.
I have been running my day to day life, everything from my various todo-lists to my schedule off pen and paper since early this year; and even longer if you remove the schedule part.
This is how I do it:

  • I use Field Notes to manage projects and tasks
  • I use a Hobonichi Planner to manage events and tasks I have to complete on a given day.

The reason I use the Planner for both planner and tasks is that it forces me to pick what I have to do, and just that one a given day. And the number of things I can do combined with events is more or less the same as I can fit on a page in my Planner.
Field Notes is a great notebook for managing tasks. I write the title for the project at top, and then I underline it, before I write the different tasks. Every page have one project, and just one. It forces me to organise tasks into smaller projects, and the number of pages in a Field Notes forces me to review rather often. Everything from every week to once a month; depending on how busy I am.
I use the [Dash Plus System] as a basic syntax, the only difference is that I strike a line through tasks that I’m not doing or moving to another list.
When I moved over to a pen and paper based Task management system, after trying out almost every single app available for OS X and iOS over the years, I found something that was powerful, simple and elegant. It is flexible, and it is easy to get a general overview. Yes, it forces you to rewrite stuff, but that also makes you realise that you might not ever get to that task you have moved over from one list to another over the last three months.
In other words: it is more work, but I feel like I have way more control than I had with any of the electronic systems I used.

The details.

I use a combination of various systems, both in terms of the system itself(it isn’t a pure Getting Things Done system) and in terms of the markup. What I mean with markup is how I write down the tasks.
Everything is written down as a project on either a single or a double page in a Field Notes notebook. I use three different kinds of projects:

  • A specific project. Like for example: find a new pen for Ingri.
  • A generic project: Inbox, Next or Shopping List.
  • Daily overview. Monday – Sunday.

I use a few very simple concepts when it comes to markup, most of them are stolen from the Dashplus system mentioned above.

  • Project: I write the name and underline it.
  • Task: Every task starts with a dash: – and then what the task is. For example: – Write first draft. And then I cross the dash to make a plus when it is completed. This is a brilliant idea I stole from the Dash Plus System. I also do a third thing with tasks, and that is to cross them out if I dropped the task or moved it over to a new project.
  • Sub-Tasks: I sometimes use subtasks, the way I have done it is to indent it the length of the dash above.


My view of a project is exactly the same as you would find in the Getting Things Done book. A non-GTD style task is often the same as you call a project in GTD, and what I call a specific project. Let’s take the following example, most people that don’t do something like GTD have a Todo list called Personal, and they might add something like “Import the Pictures from the trip” into it. I would call that a Project. The reason I simple, I want to think through everything I need to do, before I start doing it. This is what the project would look like:
Import Pictures From Out Trip:
– Find all the SD cards
– Find my Macbook.
– Make sure I have enough room on my Laptop for all of the pictures.
– If not: make room by moving some stuff either into Dropbox or my external Archive Drive.
– Start Lightroom.
– Make sure I’m in the correct Project
– Make sure it is pointed at the correct folder
– Import SD card 1
– Verify that all the pictures were important and aren’t corrupted
– Delete the pictures from the SD Card
– Import SD card 2
– Verify that all the pictures were important and aren’t corrupted
– Delete the pictures from the SD Card
– Import SD card 3
– Verify that all the pictures were important and aren’t corrupted
– Delete the pictures from the SD Card
– And so on.
– When the import is done:
– Process & discard pictures(duplicates & out of focus)
– Delete them.
This is basically what I do every single time I import pictures into Lightroom. I know the basic process because I have done it a million time. But I also know, and have documented the mistakes I often make. I’m not trying to sell everyone on Getting Things Done here, but it is something to the idea that everything is more complicated than you think and it is a good idea to do a little bit of planning before you start.
I also use two other kinds of projects in my system. They are a little bit different. One of the most powerful productivity hacks I have found is to make a daily plan in a notebook. I used to have all of my tasks, projects and contexts in Omni Focus, and then I used to write down all the stuff that was due today in a Moleskine notebook, and then fill the rest of the double page with all the other stuff I planned or hoped to do that day.
The reason it is powerful is that you only have to look at that page all day, until you have done it all. This is basically what a Daily Overview project is for me. I mentioned it briefly earlier, but I put all my meetings, appointments and tasks that are due in my Hobonichi Planner. And I use a single(not double) page in a Field Notes to write down the other stuff I hope to be done with at any given day.
And you just look at all the stuff you didn’t complete on the Monday-list, and cross them out, and move them over to the brand new Tuesday list, before you fill it up with more tasks. The crossing out and moving over notion is something is stole from The Bullet Journal.
Generic Projects is just an expansion of the Inbox you find in most todo / GTD systems. A generic project at its core is just a project that never goes away or a collection of small but not that related tasks. Some of my Generic Projects are:

  • Inbox. The inbox project is just the place I write down stuff that either don’t have a place, or need to be expanded into a project.
  • Next. I’m not sure where I got this from, but I have had it for years. The basic idea is that you have all the stuff with a due date, and all the stuff in various projects and the stuff on your bucket list. But, what about all the stuff that you need to do, but there isn’t a hurry, and they aren’t a part of a larger thing. This is what I put in my Next project.
  • Journaling. I always keep a list of stuff I want to either write about or write in my journal.
  • The Ink Smudge. Any post idea is written down on this list. For example: this thing you are reading now started out as a item on that list.
  • Shopping List. I have a few different shopping lists, one for groceries, one for IKEA and one for the rest.
  • Reading. This is probably the dumbest list I have, but I keep a list of all the books I currently am reading. My problem is that I always read a lot of different book, and I keep this list to avoid finding out that I started a book two years earlier and never completed it. I put it on the list every time I start a book, and mark it as done, when I complete it.
  • Some day maybe / Bucket. I got this one from Getting Things Done. You probably know what it is, but for those who don’t: a bucket list is a collection of stuff you want to do some day. Write it down, and get it out of your mind.

Finding the perfect tools.

The basic requirement to use my system is a notebook and a pen, but you should also get a planner, but it isn’t required. I think it is a very good idea to put everything that is due in the calendar, because then you can focus on what is due, before you even look at the rest.
I have used various notebooks over the years, but anything in the Pocket Sized Moleskine Size or Field Notes works great. The most important thing is that it is small enough to carry anywhere.
It isn’t a must to have your entire system in a format that you can carry anywhere. But it is very important to have something to capture or writing down things anywhere. For example when you think about an idea for your blog, or that thing you need to remember the next time you go to the grocery store. Because, you never think about when you are at the store, and you can never figure out anything good to write about when you sit down at your computer.
The tools I use at the moment is: Hobonichi Planner + Nock.co Hightower filled with at least two blank Field Notes, plus the one I am using and some times the previous one. Plus three pens.. I usually take my Pilot Metropolitan and a Field Notes notebook if I just want to bring the bare minimum, for example when I go to the grocery store.