Going Low-Tech with Paper To-Do Lists


While at ProfHacker we are continually watching for more efficient and helpful technological solutions to the everyday challenges of academic life, sometimes the right pad of paper is better than the most feature-rich app. This year has put more stress on my schedule than any prior, thanks to a combination of progressively larger classes and several online classes, Keeping my projects going against a tide of student emails and grading sent me looking for a digital solution: I’ve tried Natalie’s recommendation of the Momentum Chrome extension, but ended up with the same two tasks staring at me for weeks at a time. I’ve dabbled with Evernote and OneNote for this purpose, but found that I end up with notes of next steps in too many files to keep track of. I’ve even dedicated a file in Google Drive to my to-do list, but the awkwardness of typing and removing entries on my phone left it continually out of date. So at the end of the year, I’m back to my stand-by: a paper pad that goes everywhere.

If you’ve found your digital solutions to daily organization becoming more work than help, it might be time to give paper another chance. However, not all paper to-do lists are created equal: in past years I’ve relied primarily on Ampad, which simply has two sections: do it now and do it later. This is great for the mental notes that accompany procrastination, but usually my “do it later” side quickly became a thing of nightmares, while my “do it now” section would change dramatically from day to day. So for this semester, I started by making a list of everything I use to-do lists for, and decided to find a daily to-do list template that would fit my needs.

I currently use the OrganizeMe to-do list, which is intended as a daily planner. It includes two short sections, “must do today” and tasks, which I use to sort current academic work from life tasks on any given day. Neither section is very long, and both are the same length, which I find on some level helpful for the reminder to try for balance. There’s also a section for three appointments, which on a good day is enough to note committee meetings or similar obligations. (On bad days, I use the”must do today” for overflow, since not much else will be getting done!) Some of the other sections might be more or less helpful depending on your habits and needs: notes, which I use for things that come up in meetings and need to be saved for tomorrow, and a section for tracking exercise and similar habits. Sometimes I find just the visual reminder that “health” is a category worth considering each day is enough to inspire action.

Probably the biggest problem with my digital to-do list is its tendency to become quickly overwhelming. By choosing a paper template for a daily list that matches my desired balance and productivity for a day, I’ve gotten my schedule more under control — and it’s easier to stop in the evening when the list is done.

What are your strategies for managing a to-do list? Share your favorite tool (or paper pad!) in the comments.

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by John Schultz]

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