Productivity: Hybrid Paper/App System

In my last post I explained the major reasons why I switched back to a paper-based system again. The most important reasons are better remembering what I was doing, and having more flexibility how to structure your information. In addition, I really like the daily to-do list, a distillation of next actions bringing you forward to your goals.

However, as the number of projects and actions to track became even more, and having to collaborate with many more people than ever before, paper became a limit. It is an effort to constantly restructure lots of projects, and I need a better way to integrate my digital notes and other files.

For these reasons, I came up with a hybrid system of using paper and a app.

Components

In my app, I keep the context lists, project list, waiting list and calendar. On paper, I make a daily written task list, and add all new information and notes during the day. The someday/maybe lists, and general reference, stay on my computer.

I use Wunderlist to structure my context and project lists.

Context lists are list containers, and they contain all tasks as items.

Projects are grouped in categories for professional and private activities. Projects are wunderlist items, and project tasks are subtasks of these items. I use icons to visualize what the project is about, for example 📕 for a concept, or 📦 for a project with deliverables. Each project has a note where I describe the goal and a small log.

I use a plain notebook to write down my daily to-do list and notes. To visualize what kind of information I add, I use boxes ◻︎ for today lists, exclamation marks ! for important information, and triangle symbols ◁ when I wait for someone to call me back. During meetings, I create separate entries in the journal, grouping all the information in one place.

I use Scrivener to structure all my personal and private notes, plain text documents for my someday and maybe lists, and mindmaps to represent my long-term and short-term goals.

Workflow

My day to day work is structured with the following three processes:

Preparation At the beginning of the day, I open my notebook and create a new page with two columns: Agenda and tasks. In the first column, I list all meetings and talks together with a small goal description. In the second column, I add all the tasks for the day. I start with the big outcomes of the day, things that are most important. Then I check my tasks on the app, and add them to paper. From this moment on, I close my app and work only on my notebook.

Execution During the day, I keep the notebook with me all the time. I start to work on the tasks, marking them completed. Every new information is written down, whether its a new fact, a task, a call I’m waiting for. During meetings, I make separate entries in my notebook, detailing the topics and actionable items of the meeting.

Processing As regular as possible during the day, I process all written material. Important notes are added to my electronic notes in my app. New tasks are added to the appropriate project and context lists. At the end of the day, I journal in my app particular insights, lessons learned and things that went well or bad.

With these processes, I keep my notebook the medium to work with, the app as the medium to structure what I’m working on, and my computer to store information for a long term.

Why is this system effective for me?

At the heart of my system lies writing. Writing engages you more thoroughly than anything else. Writing is a technique to reflect your thoughts. You put structure and coherence to your thoughts. You are outlining ideas into paragraphs. You are drilling down to details. When you write, you will enhance remembering it throughout the day.

Repetition is also important. During preparation, I browse my lists and projects, remembering what I committed to do. During processing, I transcribe important information, putting it into a well-defined place. This keeps the information longer and fresher in your memory.

My system is also highly available. All projects, tasks and notes collected throughout the week are available on my app. I can browse, refer, restructure and add to this content whenever I feel like it. All content has a defined, well-structured place. This gives me the feeling of a “trusted system”, as David Allen puts it.

The final characteristic is flexibility. My system does not break when I don’t process all my notes at the end of each day. I can still do it another time. Also, I can work on the medium that I want to — sometimes, you just want to fill out paper, and sometimes you want to restructure the items of your to-do list. Flexibility allows to continuously evolve your system, and that keeps you motivated.

Conclusion

The hybrid paper/app system is my recommendation of a personal productivity system. You get the benefit of easy restructuring projects, tasks and notes, as well as better remembering what you are committing to do. You work out your ideas with the medium you like most. The longer you work with it, the more structured you become, creating a truly trusted system in which every information has a clearly defined place.

IT Project Manager & Developer