Why Paper Planning Is Making a Comeback

As a productivity professional, clients and audiences often ask if I can recommend a great To-Do app. I’ve looked.  I’ve tested.  I’ve spent more than one night at the App store far past a sane bedtime hour, evaluating what comes up under “productivity” and downloading dozens of top rated to-do apps.  Invested weeks giving them a good kick of the tires.

And guess what?  My answer is always the same…sorry, no --- I haven’t found a great to-do app that gets the job done.    

A sigh of relief usually flickers across the face of the asker.  Tech-savvy folks feel satisfied that they AREN’T missing out on some insider knowledge, and those who clung hard to their paper lists all along, (or gravitated back) feel vindicated. #WhosALudditeNow?

In a high tech world, paper is making a comeback—in a big way. Need proof?  The WSJ’s recent piece The Tech-Savvy To-Do List focuses on the huge trend of a handwritten to-do note-taking system, (called the Bullet Journal) developed by a….(wait for it), digital designer.

People of every generation are zeroing in on the satisfaction of paper to-do’s for a number of reasons:

  • Paper to-do lists help you remember. The very act of physically writing pen (or pencil) to paper often emblazons the task on your memory, making it easier to recall (even if you never look at the list again.)  Research has shown that students who take notes by hand have a higher retention rate than those who work on screens
  • Paper to-do lists help you focus. Going onto a device to use a Task App means entering a carnival of temptations every time.  You inevitably end up lost in email, social media or pet videos- the opposite of getting things done.  By contrast, writing on paper forces a necessary screen break which allows us to access the deeper parts of the brain involved in strategy and decision making.
  • Paper to-do lists help you prioritize. How we fill our days is how we fill our lives. Yet, once tasks become dots on a screen, they seem to feel “cheap” and disposable like every other word we can type and delete on a computer. Handwriting your to-do’s requires a commitment.  Re-writing incomplete to-do's over and over forces you to consider the true value of a task and what's getting in your way. 
  • Paper to-do lists are quicker to access. Flipping open your notebook or calendar to jot down a to-do, right on the day you intend to do it, is much more immediate and less cumbersome than booting up an app. And far less rude in the middle of a meeting—where people take the opening of any device as a signal you are multi-tasking.
  • Paper to-do lists provide a visual record of what you got done—fueling your sense of accomplishment. It enables you to account for where your time has gone.  A system like the new BOUNDLESS notebook with re-arrangeable pages, allows you to organize and group your to-do lists by project, day or person, to assess your workload, and what you might be able to delegate or approach more efficiently moving forward.

So, are To-Do apps a thing of the past? If the surge in sales of paper notebooks is any indication, maybe so.  Simple apps like NOTES or Remember the Milk are fine for routine shopping and errand lists.  But for life’s big choices … Go paper.