How to Achieve Mobile Productivity Using Pen and Paper

By Corbin Links


[ Editor’s note:This article was originally posted to two other places, including “Ezine Articles” and a former blog. You may have seen variations of it with the original title – “Spiraling Toward Mobile Productivity.” At the time, I was traveling extensively (even more than now) and having a lot of issues with my gadgets. Fraught with frustration, I looked around for more “old school” analog productivity systems. Much research, experimentation and tuning led to the “analog” pen and paper system. That system served me very well, for several years.

Mobile Productivity GraphicEver wonder if all the electronic gadgetry you sling around from flight to flight, and port to port is really getting you anywhere? When mistakenly leaving behind one of your highly proprietary gadget adapters, do you ever stop and think “ah, the good old days of landlines, pen, and paper?”

It’s ok – you can admit it. Amid all the electronic trappings of today’s “modern age,” you sometimes secretly long for a happier, simpler time. A time when “backup” meant having an extra sheet of paper and pen. “Redundant systems” were paper copies of your documents. You remember the time…

In previous articles, I asked the question “Do you really need a PDA?” During a major business reorganization just a few months ago, I had the same question – over and over – every day. People get to that question in different ways, for different reasons. For some, it is the endlessly increasing complexity of things like “smart phones” and multi-multi-multi-function devices. For others, it is the endless “cost hole” of special voice and data plans, connectivity fees, dropped connections, endless ringing, vendor-forced upgrades and tiny screens that fry when you need them most.

For me, the moment came when I forgot an adapter for one of the three PDA-type devices I was carrying. Yes, I was (and still am, to a large extent,) a gadget junky. Everywhere I go, a big bag of cables and custom adapters go with me. But, I was finding that my “trusted systems” could no longer be trusted, and I could no longer remember which device, in which program, in which system were supposed to have my details. Contacts… calendar… email/messaging… to-do… notes… etc. “Dang blast it!!” I said. (Well…I actually said something else, but you get my point.) “Where is that bleeping… adapter?????”

As I sat there bemoaning my lack of reliable gadget-based systems, something hearkened me back to the dusty memory (the human kind…) of an old boss. A boss from a different industry and another time. He had a system – several in fact – which just seemed to work. What I remember most though was his endless pile of small yellow legal pads. Each day, he would write up his daily activities on two or three sheets of the pad, track his tasks and “to do’s”, and just flip over to the next page when the previous page was done. When the little notepad was filled up, he would just relegate it to a pile of “done and file.” Essentially “backing up” what he was doing. I remember the famous detective “Columbo” doing something similar (with much smaller pad!)

Dan (the former boss we are discussing) – he was the man, I thought to myself. He was together! He didn’t struggle daily with PDA’s, cables, broken screens, software upgrades, lost license files, and the like. (Granted, such devices didn’t really exist yet, but why spoil the story?) His tools were lots of pens and pads. He probably spent less on those tools in his five years with the company, then I would spend today on a single moderately priced “smart” device. Using his home-baked, analog system of white boards and small yellow notepads, he managed staggering numbers of employees, countless clients, and endless details. With ancient memories flooding my mind, I did the decent digital thing, and went to the web for some research. Finding others having long since reached the same conclusions, and inspired further by books such as “Getting Things Done” and “Upgrade Your Life”, I could see that I was on to something. Putting everything together, I came up with a system that has served me well now for many months. Yes – working very very well, thank you very much. Curious?

Before going on, let me just say a couple of things. First and foremost – no – I’m not bashing gadgets. I have many of them as discussed on my websites and podcasts. Where personal information gadgets are necessary and useful, I share my thoughts on same. But – and here is my main point – many gadgets have the following properties:

  • Very short lifespans
  • Easily damaged
  • Very costly, especially those such as sms-based text services, ‘pay per use’ Internet, and sundry smart phone services
  • Short battery life
  • Various incompatibilities with their own software, much less integrating cleanly with other external software packages
  • Proprietary adapters (even those that don’t, or devices with USB “trickle chargers” trickle too much, and too long for my taste)
  • Have a habit of not being available when you need them (screen issues, lockups, hard resets, power issues, etc.)

That said, here is a general description of my current analog system. It is a work in progress, but works very well for me. I encourage you to find a variation that works for you and give it a try.

Analog Task Management System – The Nuts and Bolts

Equipment you’ll need:

  1. Comfortable pen—any you enjoy writing with.
  2. A packet of cheap thin-spiral notebooks – the kind with that cheap-looking coiled metal spiraled through the sides. Hint: You can pick up whole packages of these for under $5.00USD at most office supply stores.
  3. A life, and some tasks to manage.

How the System works:

  1. On the outside of your binder (cover page) put your first name, and the starting date + year.
  2. Make a dash next to the date and year, so that you can track a complete range of dates. I find that my binders hold between 20 & 40 days, depending on the quantity of notes required for any given day.
  3. At the top of each page, write out the full day and date (starting from the current date).
  4. Start listing your tasks, one per line (use multiple lines if needed).
  5. Maintain one full line space between tasks.
  6. To the left of each task, place a square which will act as your check box. NOTE: At this stage, it is not about prioritization, listing things between “1 and 3 in order of priority” and other such complex mechanisms. The point is to just get the tasks down on paper
  7. Next, sort and re-sort. Tasks that are very, very important (you should have no more than 5 of these on a daily basis), get two stars or asterisks to the left of their respective task boxes. Tasks that are “great to get done, but won’t kill me if they miss a day or two” can have a circle or triangle instead of a check box. During sorting, don’t rewrite, or reorder. Just follow the asterisk. Simplicity is beauty and analog is sanity….
  8. Write your date, write your tasks, then leave two full pages between the day and tasks you just wrote down, and the next date. The full blank pages are used to store notes during the day. The notes you write and collect throughout the day will be used as inputs for future daily tasks.

“Ok Corbin – now what do I do with my computer and digital-based devices?”

Great question! Notice three major limitations in the system above:

  1. The Analog System doesn’t help you track things that are way in the future, or more than a few days away.
  2. The Analog System It doesn’t manage recurring tasks. You could (and in many cases will,) write similar tasks over several days.
  3. The Analog System says nothing about phone numbers and contact-based information.

So we’ll address these limitations. I (personally) use the following tools to manage the limitations noted above. (Your mileage will vary.) My Mac Mail program tracks tasks and messages that need to “remind” me. My Google calendar manages things such as client appointments, birthdays, and the like. My Mac address book, and other various services I use keep track of my contacts. People that I really need to call and talk with, are all in my cell phone. People that I meet that I’ll need to talk with later, also go into my cell phone contacts list. This action must promptly occur at the physical meeting time, in order to be effective.

Sidebar: Mobile phones (as in the regular old mobile phone that just makes and receives phone calls) can be fairly reliable. Additionally, contacts transfer nicely between phone upgrades, so there isn’t much to lose when switching phones. Building your basic contact list in the phone can survive upgrades and phone breakages, since your information is stored in your cell service provider’s servers.

[ Update:  Since the article was written, I have switched to Google Calendar and Google Contacts for calendar and tasks, and sync from there. ]

What do I do with my digital calendars? I print up my daily calendar and paperclip it to the inside of my binder. When the day is done, so is my calendar entry. If my day involves a business-deal critical “if I don’t close the deal, I don’t eat” kind of meeting, the details will be stored in at least two places, one written and one digital, (and also in the minds and systems of my team members) so I don’t worry too much about missing the most important stuff. This is primarily an “analog” system for task tracking and management, but it is also an analog-digital hybrid. However, the part of the system that keeps me on top of things, and maintains the core of daily productivity is completely analog. Digital is crucial, but also supplementary. Between my cell phone (contacts,) Google Calendar (appointments and recurring-type dates) and my analog task management system, my bases are covered.

When my current spiral notebook is completely full, I put the end/closing date on the front cover and file it. Spirals stay on file in my office for six months, then go into deep storage. What does this have to do with the mobile business owner or consultant? Portability! No batteries! No cords! No cables! No outages. (Except for fire or extreme circumstances. And frankly, if circumstances are that extreme, I won’t be giving the slightest thought to my spiral notebooks…) Travel in comfort and style with your pen and paper. Amaze your friends and business colleagues with your new low-tech analog technology!

Will an analog productivity conversion eliminate your computer? A great question, but of course the answer is – absolutely not! The point here is to externalize productivity and personal task management, while improving efficiency.


In this somewhat tongue-in-cheek article, I have presented just one of many variations on personal task management and “Getting Things Done.” As with any productivity system, choose a variation that is right for you and tune it meet your needs. Above all, whether you use an analog system, a digital system, or combination of both, be sure that it is reliable and flexible enough to meet the challenges of your busy 24x7x365 day per year mobile business life.

Happy task managing!


About the Author

Corbin Links --> Data Security and Enterprise Workflow Automation Specialist, API Integrator, Identity Access Management (IAM / IdM) Consultant and "Other Duties as Required"

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