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.