Sticky-Note GTD System (Version 2)

In May of this year, I shared my paper-based organization system, which – in addition to pasting a conventional calendar into a blank notebook – uses the unusual technique of writing individual actions on small sticky-notes (“post-it” tabs), and placing them on a pre-printed page, also pasted into the notebook.

Because the stickies can be stacked on top of each other, it’s easy to create a string of subsequent or dependent actions. Just peel off the “to do” item you’ve completed, and your next task is underneath.

For standalone actions, the sticky-notes are ideal, because when you’re done, you just peel it off and throw it away. If you compulsively re-order your tasks by order of importance (as I tend to), the physical paper tabs can be shuffled just as easily as any digital list. This way, rather than filling up pages and pages with to-do lists (and/or having to rewrite your entire list every couple of days), you can use one page, separated into GTD-style “context” areas.

Depending on the level of your interest in GTD, you can also add a page of “Someday/Maybe” and “Waiting For” items.

After a year or so of working with this system, I have refined it a bit.

Initially, I had a page for monthly actions, and I would move the stickies from the “To Do” to “Done” columns each month, and then “reset” the list at the beginning of each month. This was okay, but I found it lacking in a couple of areas: first of all, many repeated actions need to be done quarterly, not monthly, and I didn’t have a way of tracking them; secondly, I wasn’t always confident that I had reset the list properly, because I didn’t have an easy way of seeing when I had actually done whatever it was I needed to do (e.g. paid my credit card bill).

The answer to this problem came to me in, of all places, a men’s room. You may have noticed that, in some public bathrooms, the employees leave a clipboard with a list of tasks (e.g. “refill soap,” “mop floor,” “scrub urinals,” etc.) and they are supposed to fill in the time or date that each task is completed. That format struck me as a brilliantly simple solution to the problem of repeated tasks. How old are the windshield wipers on my wife’s car? Did I give the dog his flea meds last month?

Moving from a “binary” sticky-note system, in which tasks are either done or not-done, to a more comprehensive approach that tells me not only whether I did something, but when I did it, has freed up a lot of mental energy for me.

Unlike the “Next Action” lists, these “Periodic Actions” sheets do fill up eventually. Since I go through at least one notebook per year, I set up a grid that allows me to record roughly a year’s worth of dates. I separated the actions into monthly and quarterly lists, and gave each one a two-page spread in my notebook.

Since I don’t have an excessive number of quarterly actions, I used the space at the bottom of the page to record very infrequent actions (such as when I bought new tires), as well as easily-forgotten information that I only need every once in a while (e.g. what size the AC filter in the house is, what kind of bags our vacuum cleaner takes, etc.). This way, I have that information at my fingertips, whenever I need it.

This also allowed me to expand my “Next Action” space to a full two-page spread as well. (I confess, I sometimes ran out of space for stickies on my one-page design).

The design is quite simple, so you may want to tweak it to your own aesthetic sensibilities, but here is a PDF version of my layout, with blank spaces for writing in your own actions. I hope you find it as useful as I do!
Click here to download the PDF for your own use.

Update: Keeping track of past projects & ideas is a challenge, since there’s no “search” function on a notebook.

The imperfect solution I’ve settled on is this: once I’ve finished a notebook, I go back through it, looking for anything that still strikes me as interesting, important or unfinished. When I find something, I use an index tab (those yellow, plastic sticky tabs that are sold right next to the paper ones) to physically bookmark it. I also have an “ideas” page at the back of my current notebook where I keep an ongoing list of things I want to purse further, and a “remember” page where I keep track of things that I’ve figured out and don’t want to forget.


  20 comments for “Sticky-Note GTD System (Version 2)

  1. Scott
    November 12, 2012 at 6:49 pm

    This is such great idea. Thanks for sharing it.

    A couple of small details: What size Post-it tabs do you think works best? & What kind of adhesive do you use to attach the pages to the book?

    Thanks.

    • Alexander
      November 12, 2012 at 10:44 pm

      Thanks for the compliment! I use the “page marker” size sticky notes. I get the generic ones from Staples, and they come in a package of 500 for about $3. The Post-It brand product is identical, but costs twice as much. I use a regular glue stick to attach the pages. I hope this helps!

  2. Ronald Price
    April 4, 2013 at 4:47 am

    Thx for posting this. It has helped me tremendously! 🙂

    • Alexander
      April 4, 2013 at 11:17 am

      Wonderful!

  3. Brent
    April 16, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    This looks great. I plan on using something similar for my todo’s/calendar/periodic, then use evernote for longterm archiving/reference material. I’ve been struggling for years to truly get into gtd and found computer systems to annoying to use fully. Recently I bought a scottevest sport coat so I can carry around my kindle/phone/ letter sized journal with me everywhere and all my other necessities.

    I was wondering how you implement project tracking and your inbox/note taking into this system. In other words could you share how you implement all of your gtd system? Thanks!

    • Alexander
      April 16, 2013 at 7:41 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Brent. I use the rest of the notebook for note-taking and project tracking. Now that you mention it, I should work on refining that part of my system a bit more. At this point, my approach is pretty basic: Essentially, I just dedicate a couple of pages to a project, and continue to put notes for that project in that space, rather than spreading it throughout the notebook. I don’t find that the “10,000 mile” issues cause as much mental noise for me as the daily to-dos and periodic actions, so I haven’t thought about it too much. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  4. Marie
    October 30, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    Hi,
    just wondering what is the size of the notebook u are using?

    • Alexander
      October 30, 2013 at 10:17 pm

      The one in the photos is the approx. 6″x9″ size. I currently use a full size 9″x11″ one. Bigger pages mean more room to put stuff, so it’s really just a matter of taste.

  5. Alison
    January 14, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    Ah, thank you for sharing your paper-based system, it’s quite beautiful!

  6. Lisa Feinberg
    April 27, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    Alexander,

    Great system! I’m wondering if you ever run out of space to write on the page marker sized post? Also, do you ever have issues with the post it’s losing their stickiness? It seems like there may be a risk of losing the post it’s?

    • Alexander
      April 27, 2016 at 6:03 pm

      Thank you! Great question … As a matter of fact, I have had some trouble with the little notes falling off, so I’ve recently been experimenting with the 1.5″ x 2″ notes, which come in “extra sticky,” and offer more space for writing. Give those a try!

  7. Angela Perez
    November 12, 2016 at 11:51 am

    This is great! Thank you for sharing! l love the “post-it tabs” as layered next actions! Sometimes I don’t want to create a whole projects page for something that just needs to be broken down but won’t take a long time or isn’t that involved. I thought about creating a “small projects” actions list for these types of projects. The layer tabs is brilliant!

  8. Lynda Anderson
    January 1, 2017 at 12:17 am

    This sounds like a great way to revise my current system. I’ve always loved the sticky notes for my misc. ideas, but l kept trying to do it all on one or two pages, for one thing. I have a great solution for the problem of eventual “unstickiness”. Look for repositionable glue. I’ve used it for quite some time, because the loose half bothered me and my notes would get out of place too easily. Elmer’s makes one in a glue stick form, and you can also find it in craft stores, as quilters often use it.You have to let the liquid type dry for a couple of minutes or it may stick like a regular glue. I have also used it in my classroom for various activities as you would use a magnetic board. The kids can move things all around and they love it.This way you can make essentially ANYTHING into a sticky note. It works great on laminated things too. Thanks for sharing your system. I’ve also enjoyed the comments and synergy as more ideas just help to make it better and better.

    • Alexander
      January 1, 2017 at 1:16 pm

      I love that idea! Thanks also for the kind words!

  9. Caroline
    May 19, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    Paper organization is no stranger to me and I tried a digital app that was great at first. But then it got so big I couldn’t see my tasks anymore, so now I just use it as a generic reminder tool. Will be giving your sticky-note method, along with the kanban system in a personal journal a try as my business life is beginning to meld with my personal life. Could you give me an example of what types of items would go into the “Waiting For” column? Hooray for pen and paper!

    • Alexander
      May 20, 2017 at 11:49 pm

      Thanks for your note, Caroline! The “Waiting For” column would include things like:
      – A project that you submitted to somebody, and are waiting for feedback on.
      – A phone call or email that you are waiting for, and don’t want to forget about, in case you need to remind them.
      – A request that you have made, and are waiting for an answer on.

      The basic idea is that these are things you can’t act on at the moment, but that you can’t forget about, because you might need to follow up on. I hope that helps!

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