Productivity: Effective Paper-based Notebooks

2 min readAug 13, 2017

In a previous post, I explained that paper is my new medium to track my to-dos, projects and notes. This post further explains what adaptations to the classical GTD principles I need to make to work with this medium again.

Order your information

In my opinion, GTD is about where to put which information. The criteria I presented earlier was to put things close and available if you need to access them regularly. Your context lists, your project list, your waiting list and calendar are things you want to keep with you. Someday/maybe lists, and your general reference should be kept outside.

A notebook has limited physical space. This defines some constraints on where you can put your information. However, I liked this as a challenge, not necessarily as an obstacle. So, my key principle is: Order the information from most frequently to less frequently, from concrete to undefined.

My notebook has three parts, each occupying about one third of the notebook.

• The first part are my to-do lists. Right at the start of this section, I have my daily to-to list. At the end of this part, I have my context lists and my waiting lists.

• The second part are my projects, goals and roles. This information directly affects — or creates — what is in my to-do lists. This part is read regularly and helps me to define what I want to do.

• The third part are notes, daily notes and notes to specific topics that I’m interested into.

With this structure, you are ready to start.

Define your workflow

The basic GTD workflow stays in place. But I add a new component: The daily to-do list. I know that this is not part of GTD, but it helps me greatly to get my things done. I start to think about the three most important tasks I want to do, and write them down. Next, I add about 3–6 next actions from my context lists, marking the entries from the context lists as being moved. Finally, I add all events from my calendar (which is still electronic). At a glance, I have all my actions of one day in one place.

During the day, I mark my to-dos as completed. I also browse a specific context and start to work on these tasks when I want to do something specific. Go to a context list as you like, and directly cross out what you did there. No need to put them in your daily list again.

Next steps

From here on, you are free to explore the vast amount of paper based templates that others are using. There are project trackers, habit trackers, mind maps for goals. Recipes, Checklists. All kinds of material. Incorporate what you like. And think about the flexibility of paper — you define what to record, where to put it, how to process it.