5 simple steps to start your paper-based task list

Last week I wrote about how to CLEAR your workload so you can stay focused and accomplish your work. In that blog, I referred to using a digital task manager. Since then, I’ve had a bunch of people ask me if they can apply my CLEAR formula to their paper-based task list. The answer is, definitely.

While I’m all about using technology to work smarter, I acknowledge that sometimes you have to use the system that works for you. And for many, that means a paper task list. So, here are five simple ways to start and maintain your paper-based To-Dos.

Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • two notebooks (different colours)
  • sticky notes
  • two pens (black and red)

Before you start to CLEAR your workload, you first have to do a BrainDump. This is an exercise where, using notebook 1, you write down everything in your head: all the calls you have to make, appointments to schedule and things you need to get done. Take 15 minutes in a quiet room, with no distractions. At the end, you’ll have a long, disorganized list. Not to worry, you’re now ready to CLEAR your workload.

1. Categorize

Start putting your BrainDump list in order based on priority: 1 = Overdue/Today and 2= Later. Write these numbers beside each item, as they apply. Now is the time to schedule any appointments into your calendar.

2. Label

It’s often helpful to label your tasks. This is definitely easier to do in a digital task manager, but it can work for paper too. Everyone has their own system. I like to use letters beside each of my tasks:

  • P (project task)
  • C (call)
  • E (errand)
  • ✳ (important)

One of my clients uses different colour highlighters to identify those tasks she needs to do, and those she can delegate to her administrative assistant.

3. Establish

Now it’s time to set a timeframe for each task. Estimate how long each task will take and write it beside each item (e.g. 15m, 30m, 1h). By setting time limits for each task, you’ll be better able to schedule them into your day.

4. Attack

It’s time for Notebook 2. This will hold your daily task list. To start, put today’s date at the top of the page and list all your number 1 items from your BrainDump. As you complete them, cross them out with your red pen (this really feels good).

If you have random thoughts or tasks that happen on the fly or at a meeting, add them to the appropriate list (Today or Later), or write them on a sticky note, which you’ll transcribe later. Now schedule a time in your calendar to complete your Today tasks, and get to work.

5. Review

At the end of the day, transfer all those items you didn’t get done today to the next page. Put tomorrow’s date at the top. You’ll also want to look at your Later list to see if you need to transfer anything over. Lastly, transcribe the items from your sticky notes and put them into the recycle bin.

That’s it.

Have fun with your new system. You may have to refine it based on your individual working style, but you have the core of the CLEAR system to get your started.

Do you use a paper-based system to track your tasks? Does it work for your? What are some of your issues? Join the conversation and leave your feedback in the comments box below.






  1. Hi there

    I realize this article is a bit dated, but I’m finding that I’m sick of app-twiddling and wanting to go back to the “free” pen and paper route! I’m glad to have found this article and I want to give it a shot…

    A question however:

    What is the purpose of notebook 1? After doing a braindump, is it to be revisited? I’m wondering what the long-term workflow looks like.


    • When it comes to creating task lists, ideas and improvements are never dated, so thanks for your comment and great question.

      Notebook 1 is used for the brain dump exercise. You’ll find that no matter how diligent you are, you’ll need to do this exercise on a regular basis … so having all your brain dump items in one place is helpful. You can also use this notebook for ideas you have on the fly, or things you need to “park” in order to keep them on your radar for planning.

      Using pen and paper to keep track of all your To Do items works well for many people. If you’re tired of all the apps out there promising to solve your productivity challenges, I’d encourage you to give it a try.

      If you haven’t found the ideal digital app to help you with this challenge, take a look at Asana. It’s free and it’s a great tool.

      Let me know how it goes!

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