Return to analog

I never found a to-do list app that really worked for me.

What happens when I use a to-do list app is that I wind up using them as a capture mechanism. As Mr. Allen describes in Getting Things Done, one of the goals of your productivity system is to “get it all out of your head”, so that you can have the mental space you need to actually complete the tasks. To-do list apps always served this purpose well for me.

The problem I have with to-do lists apps though, is that their makers are not incentivised to help you solve your productivity problem. This might seem counter-intuitive, but think about it a little more and you’ll see the underlying truth. It is in the app-maker’s interest to ensure you always believe you have a productivity problem, so that you can need a tool like theirs to solve it.

I tried out all kinds of different apps, but towards the end of last year I realised I was barking up the wrong tree. The question I was asking was “which to-do list app should I use”, so I proceeded to un-ask the question. The question I needed to be asking instead was:

How can I ensure that the important things get done each day?

Once I reframed the question to deliberately focus on the thing that mattered to me, I realised I needed to go back to first principles. What I needed to do was return to analog.

Going analog

Since last year, I haven’t used Things or Trello or Wunderlist or Asana or any other similar application for my personal productivity. Instead, I bought myself a really nice notebook and have been using it daily to keep track of the important things.

So far, I’m 100% more satisfied with my productivity system than I was before, and I’m no longer spending prescious brain cycles wondering if there’s a to-do app out there that’s just waiting for me to discover it.

My system

Here’s a few highlights about the system I’m using:

  • I’ve borrowed heavily from the Bullet Journal system, but have made a number of modifications and tweaks to suit my own requirements.

  • I still use a digital calendar, but copy each day’s events into my analog notebook at the start of each day.

  • In addition to tasks, I’m also keeping track of the habits I aim to build—such as meditation, writing these blog posts, exercise, reading, and so forth.

  • I’m also doing lots of other small things, such as writing down my workout plans so that I can deliberately mix up the exercises, and tracking my mood over time too (which has shown up some interesting trends).

The specifics don’t matter

What you need to understand here though is that the specifics of my system don’t matter. These are patterns and tools I’m tweaking as I go, so they’ll probably look different in three week’s time. These choices I’m making are also very specific to my personality too—the things that are important to me about my system might not be the same things that would be important to you.

Instead of looking at the specifics, I urge you to consider the wider point about why going analog works. For me, I think it boils down to three points:

  1. An analog system pulls you out of the chaos that is your digital life, and forces you to have a wider view than just the tasks that require a screen. Your laptop and phone are zones of disruption and distraction—so a productivity system that exists outside of that realm has a huge advantage.

  2. Reducing the number of things that can go wrong with your system means you both use and trust it more. An imperfect system you trust and use is infinitely better than the perfect system you don’t trust or never use.

  3. If something isn’t working in a system like this, it’s your fault. The bonus here is in the corollary—you’re free to redesign the patterns you used yesterday to represent whatever you think might work better tomorrow.

I strongly encourage you to question whether the system(s) you’re using to get the important things done are really helping you do that. If, like me, you suspect they aren’t, then I urge you to consider going analog instead.

Design a system that works for you, and tweak it anytime you notice something isn’t working.

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