Working on paper

I am not sure if it’s a generational thing, but I do quite a lot of thinking and working out on paper.

I have noticed, while working in offices, that older people (45+) are quite often doing at least part of their work with a pen and paper on their desk, and that in general younger folk are not. But… I am happy to be corrected on this sweeping generalisation!

Over the years I’ve reached the balance that works for me between digital and paper. I use paper a lot less than I used to, but will always use some.

Here are the things I tend to do on paper:

  • daily to-do list
  • diagram outlines / blockouts
  • sticky note reminders
  • meeting notes
  • long form reading

Yes, I know you can do all this digitally, and I do use many digital tools for these things. I happily use Miro, OneNote, Apple Notes, AnyDo, Google and Outlook calendars, Cortana, Google Drive, plus all our project tools including Confluence, Jira, Azure, Slack, Sharepoint… (okay, I don’t happily use Sharepoint)…

But there is something about handling and working with paper, and writing things down, that aids thinking, at least for me.

But I also believe in working light.

My paper mantra:

  • minimal paper – only what is needed
  • paper is temporary – I never end up with paper collateral to be kept long term; everything ends up on our project boards or otherwise stored digitally.

Paper elements on my desk:

  • To-do notepad
  • A4 lined scratch pad – for scrawling notes or ideas while I’m on the phone or doing something else
  • meeting notebook
  • sometimes: printed docs for reference. While a complex project is train, I will sometimes keep a manilla folder containing reference docs and any temporary scribbles, plans, or notes from my scratch pad that are work in progress. This folder is always 100% temporary – everything in it is ultimately either discarded or transferred to a digital record.

Paper I carry when going to work in the office for a day:

  • the current page from my to-do list
  • meeting notebook

The goal is this:

Not this:

Here is some more detail about how I work with paper:

To Do lists

I always have a one page to-do list on my desk, and yes, I tend to re-write it every 1-2 days. I am a bit fussy with the format. I like an A5 or column-shaped notepad, minimal headings and minimal to no decoration. Sure, I could just use a plain notepad, but I like having my to-do list stand out.

Bad formats:

  • Anything with a twee heading like GET SHIT DONE, YOU’VE GOT THIS, etc
  • Too many sections. I don’t need a schedule, or sections for goals or tracking water intake
  • Too small

Better formats:

This one is close but not quite right. Still too many sections including a HUGE one for Schedule which I don’t need because that’s in my Outlook/Teams calendar.

Good formats:

This one is pretty good. I’d add a priority section, but otherwise I like it. I like the way the bullets aren’t numbered. Minimal and useful.

Here’s the one I’m using now. I like it a lot:


How I use a to-do list:

  • current and priority tasks only
  • tasks coming up or due later, I keep on sticky notes on my window
  • tasks only: nothing scheduled and no reminders. I use AnyDo and Outlook and Google calendars to keep on top of those
  • target 3 things to complete on a day. Add 2 more that I COULD DO if I have time
  • a fresh page each day

That’s not to say I don’t ever end up with a mess of highlighted/starred priority items jammed in up the top, 10 things to do today, and having one page become two that gets scribbled over and added to over days. But I try not to.

Sticky notes

So many uses. Task reminders. Paradigm reminders. Password reminders (just kidding).

At my last workplace as we were implementing a new workflow for our change program I kept our program workflow on a sticky note on my laptop as a north star.

paradigm reminder

While working from home, during a hectic phase where I was co-ordinating and working in multiple projects, I set up a whiteboard with swimlanes per project and columns for TO DO, DEVELOPING, IMPLEMENTING, DONE – or sometimes just TODAY, NEXT, LATER – to help me keep track. At the time, we were not using team project boards, and I found this kept me sane while we navigated spreadsheet hell in the meantime.

Although, my whiteboards and stickies did not always cope well in the Melbourne summer.


Happily, we are now using project team boards and my personal whiteboard is tucked back behind my bookshelf. But I do still often keep sticky note task reminders on the window above my laptop.

Scratch pad

I keep an A4 lined notepad on my desk for scribbling things down while on the phone, or for doodling, or for drawing out a rough plan for a diagram (though I just as often use my whiteboard for that).

I like keeping temporary scratchpad notes seperate from meeting notes, because most of these scratch notes are of the moment and I don’t need to keep them.

Meeting notes

I take minimal notes in meetings, but those I do take, I take by hand, in a notebook. I use these, which you buy in packs of 3, so they are not as expensive as other Moleskine books. These are a good format as they are big enough to fit one meeting per page, and are still light to carry around. Plus they look pretty professional and nice, which does not matter of course, but it’s an extra bonus.

How I write my meeting notes:

  • meeting name, attendees initials, date
  • salient points (just decisions or outcomes or important ideas – not “meeting minutes”)
  • action items for me bulleted by a star in a circle (ticked off as I do them)
  • action items for others (only the ones I need to track) bulleted by a circle

We have used digital meeting records a lot more in the past and I do prefer them, but these days I only create those for meetings that need a more formal or persistent record, such as those with clients and vendors, decision meetings, etc.

Long form reading

If I have an article or even a long presentation deck to absorb, I will still sometimes print it out to read it and highlight or mark up areas of note.

I probably do this less now while WFH (but because I am old, I do have a ten year old printer at home that I still use), but it is still my preferred way to read and absorb information.

I have also printed and blu-tacked useful reference docs such as roadmaps and schedules, on the window behind my laptop.

What about tablets?

Tablets with a stylus are awesome. I have used a Microsoft Surface Pro, which I didn’t love as a laptop but did like in the tablet mode. It was good for blocking out workflow diagrams and for very quick sketches to share in or after meetings.

I’ve used a Samsung Galaxy Note phone for years and use the stylus and notepad a lot. On my wishlist is a Samsung tablet or a reMarkable.

But there is a big advantage that temporary paper has over digital, which is easy, persistent visibility. It doesn’t matter how awesome and versatile my digital solutions are or how I format them: nothing beats the easy view of ALL my temporary paper at once that I get from a few stickies on my window, a scratch pad by my side and a one-page to-do list on my desk.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s