Why I Need a Paper List to Be Productive

posted by Andrea | 07/5/2013

paper lists

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a list-making person. I absolutely love everything about lists — making them, crossing things off them, finishing them, organizing them, etc. etc.

Even as a very little girl, I made lists. Sometimes I would make lists of what I was going to wear, lists of toys I had, list of toys I wanted, lists of things to do… or just lists of letters and numbers. Seriously — that’s how much I loved my paper lists!

making my lists

(this is me making a list, back when I was about 3 years old)

When I went off to college (10 years ago this fall) I was armed with my trusty planner and plenty of notepads for making the many lists I would no-doubt make over the next few years. However, the first class of my entire college career was a computer class — and on the first day, I was introduced to the concept of virtual calendars.

For the first time ever, I typed up my list instead of physically writing it down. CRAZY!

It was new, it was cool, it was a great way to save paper — but throughout the entire first semester, I struggled to be extremely productive with my virtual lists and virtual calendar. I ended up putting everything into my virtual calendar, and then either printing it out every time I made a change or manually re-writing EVERYTHING into my paper planner. And I still made paper to-do lists every day.

I knew this wasn’t the best way, but my computer class required that everything be typed into my virtual calendar, and my brain told me that in order for me to remember it, I needed a hard copy with me at all times.

Ironically, during that same first semester of college, I took an extremely difficult religion class that required us to write pages and pages of notes every class. I was fortunate enough to hook up with an upperclassman who helped me study for the ridiculously hard tests and exams.

As we studied, she pointed out that I was very good at organizing my thoughts and the class notes on paper. My notes were easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to study from — so one of our study tactics was to work our way through both of our notes and physically re-write them all, talking about things we didn’t understand as we went along.

It was then that I realized how important it was for me to write things down if I wanted to remember them — and I can credit that girl for single-handedly changing the way I studied for the rest of my college career!

I’ve never had a bad memory; however, when it comes to important information and things I definitely can’t afford to forget, I absolutely must write them down, as it’s the act of writing that helps to solidify those pieces of information in my brain. Plus, if all else fails, I always have the fall-back of my written list or notes.

So, while I’ve tried (and tried and tried) to find digital, virtual, and paperless systems that might work for me, I’ve failed time and time again.

Dave and I do use the iCalendar function on our Apple products to note larger events (meetings, sporting events, school/church stuff, doctor’s appointments, etc.) but other than that, we’re both pen and paper list junkies.

And I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Paper lists provide the opportunity for me to process my thoughts.

Paper lists allow me to organize those thoughts and ideas into manageable daily and weekly to-do lists.

Paper lists help me to remember what’s on my lists by physically writing down my tasks — and then reading them over throughout the day.

Paper lists provide loads of satisfaction as I can vigorously cross off each to-do after it’s complete.

In my opinion, paper lists are just the greatest — and so much simpler than any App, program, or virtual calendar!

My List Making Tools:

For the last 3 years, I’ve been exclusively using 3 list-making tools…

list making tools

1. Invite.L Agenda — this planner is made by a Korean company, and while it’s the best planner I’ve ever used, they have switched ownership in the last year and their new website is not very user-friendly… plus their shipping prices are quite expensive. You can read my blog post about the Agenda here, or visit the Invitel.L website here.

2. My Printable Daily Routine Printable — I created this printable based on how I structure my day, so obviously it’s a fabulous tool for me. However, I know for a fact there are thousands of others who regularly print and use this handy list-making tool.

3. Sticky Notes — I have a whole bunch of sticky notes that I use on a daily basis. I have sticky notes inside kitchen cabinets for reminders of what I need to buy on my next grocery trip, sticky notes inside my planner with directions, quick thoughts, phone numbers, or ideas for upcoming blog posts, sticky notes in my wallet, in the bathroom, etc. I mainly use the really big sticky notes I mentioned in this post, but sometimes smaller ones will do 🙂

NOTE: if you’re wondering how I utilize these tools together, you can read this post for more in-depth information.

I realize these tools will not work for everyone, but this list-making system has been working marvelously for me for over 3 years  — and anything that continues to work after 3 years, a new house, a new baby, a growing business, etc. is worth sticking with!

So while I’d honestly love to say I use a paperless list-making system, I have a feeling that announcement won’t be coming any time soon (although if it does, you’ll be some of the first to know!)

I guess sometimes we just have to do what works for us, even if there are so many other newer, “better”, more sophisticated ways available.

What about you? Do you share my love of paper lists, or have you found a great virtual substitute that meets your needs?

Filed under: WorkProductivity

Leave a comment


  1. Andi


    I use a planner very similar to the one you use. You said that the company changed hands and it’s more expensive and difficult to get. Here is the link for the one I use: http://www.bobsyouruncle.com/planners-category/8-days/

    You can pick the start date, and they even give you room for “someday!”


    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Andi — that’s awesome! I might have to contact that company to see if they’d like to do a giveaway 🙂

    Really appreciate this link!


  2. Lizanne


    Thanks Andrea for this post, and everyone for their comments. I guess I’ve always been a pen and paper person…as someone said, a ‘tactile’ learner…but it did get quite cumbersome carrying around a planner, so for a few years I used a PDA, which worked quite well for me. I’d still use post-its or random pieces of paper for items that came to me when I couldn’t immediately put them in electronically, and I’d transfer them later. I worked similarly when I had a Blackberry. Still, I’d always find my handbag, tote bags, and coat pockets filled with little paper notes, and it kind of bothered me for not being neater and more organized. Your post and the comments made me feel better about my tendency to want to write things down, organize by color, and the delight of using a fresh new notebook or planner! I think I will still end up being a ‘hybrid’ of sorts, to try to minimize paper clutter and waste, to have things saved as back-up if the paper/notebook should get lost, and just because certain types of lists, etc. work better on paper (like grocery shopping lists) and others digitally (long term schedules and events).


  3. CHrissy


    Hey Andrea

    Thanks for this post. I have tried to go paperless and do a virtual to-do list, and it just doesn’t work for me. I find that I am more productive when I write something down because its in my brain and I am more likely to remember it. There are definitely some things that should be paperless but for me, the most productive is having a to-do list. And I will check out your recommended planner as I am always looking for something better than what’s currently available


  4. Olga


    I absolutely agree! I need to write things down. I’ve tried all kinds of apps and electronic gizmos, and although I love technology, my lists are one area where I stay old fashioned. I agree that just by writing it down, I helps me remember it so much better. Most of the time I can remember my list without even looking at it, just because I wrote it. I helps keep me organized and maybe I enjoy crossing things off my list too:).


  5. Janie


    I am so glad you wrote this. My whole life I have always had some sort of pen or pencil and paper on me..I am prolific in what I write..lists notes to myself ideas..you nae it. I prefer to hold a book in my hands and feel the paper and pages (I have TRIED to use e-planners and e-books I can not do it.) I struggle with whether to get a kindle or other electronic device but I am afraid I would loose interest in it they same way I lose interest when reading e-books. People (my kids) think I am old fashioned or just OLD, but it is how I roll….it is they way I am … I need that pen in hand and a piece of paper to organize and remember…glad I am not alone…


  6. Jennifer


    I love my paper lists! I use half sheets of paper from the recycle bin mostly. On one side I list goals/to-dos for the week, then I divide the other side by days of the week and divvy out my goals/to-dos, plus I add meal plans, which I underline to recognize quickly. On my iPad I keep a list of major projects and to-dos for around the house, a gift idea list, a list of meals/recipes I want to try soon, a list of purchases I would like to make, garden plans, a book list, etc. I refer to these lists when I make my weekly paper lists. I do put appts and events on my iPhone calendar because I like the digital reminders. I keep a running grocery list on my iPhone just in case i get an unexpected opportunity to stop at the store. I guess I’m sort of a hybrid.


  7. Lee Cockrum


    I am sort of hybrid!! I love my list app in my phone for various shopping lists. I have running ones for grocery, BJ’s, Walmart etc. I also love the reminder feature on my iPhone calendar!! (Although I wish I could customize the lead time on the reminders.) But for house work tasks, packing etc, I like a tangible list. I can circle things that might get forgotten etc.


  8. Katie


    Well, I am a digital girl. I finally found the perfect digital calendar – aptly called Awesome Calendar. It syncs with gmail and your iCal (it even integrates with Facebook birthdays and events). I love it! It is super easy to set up recurring events – even wired ones like the third Wed. Of every fourth month. But best of all, I can make to do lists and check them off as I go. It even keeps me posted on what percent of my list has been completed! I actually just started keeping 5 lists that run through one week and then I start a fresh list at the start of each week, carrying over anything left undone. My five lists are call, email, do, errands and purchases, and gratitude. It has been awesome as I am transitioning from teaching to working from home. My handwriting stinks too, so I prefer typing. I wonder if that’s why I am so forgetful??? 😉


  9. Kelsey


    Thanks to one of your previous posts, I now carry a planner with me. I have yet to try a daily routine sheet, and I’m intrigued by your use of post-its – they were almost the death of me at the office! I relied on them at first because needed to get tasks out of my head and onto paper, but I was soon overwhelmed by all the desk clutter (not to mention that I would misplace them or unintentionally bury them under files). I now “brain dump” into a single notebook – the items are unorganized (I don’t even stay in the lines), but my desk is clear, m tasks are in one spot, and my brain is not tied up remembering every little detail.
    P.S. I always take handwritten notes, but I’m more apt to remember them according to where things are on the page. Spatial connections best reinforced the info, though re-writing was helpful because it forced me to review all of my notes. I love hearing how different people best retain info!


  10. Ree Klein


    Ah, just reading about lists gets me all excited…I, too, am a list junkie! I use an 8×10 spiral notepad (I got a bunch of them for free). I have one for ideas, one for daily tasks and one I use on contracting jobs to keep my notes, billable hours and mileage.

    They work great for me because I don’t have a bunch of loose papers flying around and they are easy to store. The picture of little you is so cute!


  11. Jane


    I love my paper and pen lists! Especially the grocery list! It is mostly the same items each time with just a few special and different items. Sometimes as I am digging thru my raincoat pocket I will find and old list and it makes me laugh out loud! But I agree with you, and often espouse to friends, that it is all in the writing it down. Once I write it down I can remember it later. But I also love writing my To Do list each day. If it is written down, it gets done. Whether at work or at home, my lists keep me productive and they let me cross off to see my accomplishments.
    And sometimes, I come across the list of a stranger and I find that so interesting. I am left to wonder and speculate and that is so fun! I think I come across this list making tendency thru my dad. After he passed away, I found all sorts of his lists. He kept a running record of how long it took to do the daily crossword, the characters in his tv shows, different visits with friends, and all sorts of other items that made up the fabric of his days. Thank goodness he did this as it helped us take care of his affairs. Now my lists are more meaningful to me as I know how I acquired the habit. That’s pretty special!


  12. Kalyn Brooke


    Totally get you. 🙂

    It took me forever to finally give up my paper planner, and now I use iCalendar. However, my blogging notebook/planner will never go virtual. I want to have that handy even when I’m not at the computer.

    I do use Wunderlist, but not exclusively. It’s just to jot things down when I’m on the go, so I can transfer it to the appropriate lists when I get home.


  13. Theresa


    I’m a paper and pen kinda gal, I have tried digital lists but seem to forget those more easily. Everything I need to remember is noted either in my daily planner and Flylady calendar in our kitchen. And if I’m away from home, I either send myself an email or text reminders.


  14. Mama Murrey


    No, digital will never have the same satisfaction for me as physically crossing something off my paper list. Because of depression, my brain felt very disorganized, and it was transforming to learn to carry a planner. It was literally a load off my mind to write down on paper all the things my tired brain worked so hard to remember.

    Now that I don’t have depression any more (thank You, Jesus!), I am able to actually be an organized person because of my lists, TimeKeeper planner, FlyLady calendar, etc. My “system” is constantly changing but slowly, slowly I’m building structure that does work and that enables me to take care of my home and family and not let important things slip through the cracks.


  15. Kristen


    I am very visual, but I guess writing is not necessary for me, just seeing 🙂 I love the “Stickies” widget on my Mac because I can add a new task to the top of the list if it’s more important, and I enjoy deleting it rather than just crossing it out. I use different color stickies for work, personal, etc. I’m a much faster typist than writer, and I’m such a perfectionist that I would probably have to rewrite the whole list if I wrote something wrong.
    I do prefer a paper calendar, but I got tired of carrying my planner around so I’ve switched to a Google calendar. Plus my husband can add things to it himself (if he would ever remember to do so 😉


  16. Chalyse Meiklejohn


    I agree – I can usually only do paper & pen. But I use the iPhone app Taskable, too. I mainly use it to “jot things down” when I don’t have paper & pen on me and need to remember something. I’ve tried more “advanced” apps but this one is the simplest. It’s easy to add something, check something off, delete something, and rearrange items on the list. So if I remember something when I don’t have paper on me, I quick type it in. Then I transfer everything to a paper list once I get paper & pen. 😉


  17. Patty@homemakersdaily.com


    Oh, yeah – paper!!!!! I tried using the calendar in my iPhone but it just doesn’t cut it. There’s something about writing something down that cements it in my mind but also gets it out of my head. Electronic planning doesn’t do that. I’ve been a paper planner girl since I started using planners and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.


  18. Pamela


    I am a paper and pen, notebook, binder, file folder junkie…lists are a major obsession for me lol. I write stuff down on one list, then put it in order on another list and THEN I make my final pretty list…I know it just gets marked out and thrown away BUT until it hits the trash can I love it 🙂 I have a homemaking binder, a meal plan binder, a budget/bills binder and I’m just starting my homeschooling binder ( we start in August ) and those are FILLED WITH LISTS…I thought I was pretty weird for my list love…thanks for making me feel less nuts lol!!!


  19. Cathy Thomas


    Years ago I discovered that if I want to remember something for a short time I need to write it down. If I want to remember it forever I need to type it. So you would think that digital planners would be perfect for me. The problem is I can’t find one that meets all of my needs. So I think I have finally decided that it needs to be paper and pencil. Now to just find some type of paper and pencil system that I can carry for everything I do without it being overly bulky and cumbersome.


  20. Jennifer


    I’m glad you mention this, because I tried electronic calendars and task lists, too, and felt kind of guilty for not finding them useful! They seemed like a good idea – I could instantly import my whole term’s teaching schedule from the university calendar, and when I buy train tickets the confirmation email has a function to push the train times straight onto my own electronic calendar (here in the UK). But somehow I kept reverting to a paper planner and lists. For a while I entered everything twice on the computer and on paper, which was ridiculous! Then I gave up on the electronic calendar altogether. I was never quite sure it didn’t work!

    I do have one idea, based on some of my research into memory. We remember things much better if they are spatially organised. Trained memory advice, from the classical period right through to the modern, suggests organising things to remember in an imagined physical space. This is for the sake not only of simply recalling something by rote, but being able to ‘use’ it as well, simply being able to ‘think about it’. And when I think of my week, I do think in terms of the visual, physical layout of my planner or calendar, so it isn’t just a tool for basic memory (‘What am I supposed to do today?’) but also provides the structure for how I think about my day and my tasks.

    I find that electronic tools, while ostensibly more thorough and organised (with many options and synchronised calendars and task lists), are much less visually helpful – almost because they are so neat and characterless. Whereas a pleasingly-designed planner, with distinctive handwritten notes, crossings-out, ticks, etc., is actually more memorable and thus easier to ‘think with’. That’s my theory, anyway.


  21. Beth


    Some of my organization for monthly and daily life is digital just b/c it’s the way the world functions but then I still hang onto my paper and pen (pretty colored pens often!) b/c like you, it helps me process and remember. Tactile learning, I think is the label I’ve been given in the past for the way for the way I learn, process and remember. The way you describe studying is how I got through school as well… High school all the way through graduate school. If it isn’t broken… 🙂


  22. Deni


    I am also a paper list maker! I recycle envelopes from junk mail and write my daily top five “To Do” list for the whole week on this envelope, listed by Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…… I also write my meal plan on the other side in the same fashion. For groceries, I have a magnetic notepad on the fridge and if someone needs something, they just write it on the running list for my weekly shopping trip. This system has worked for us for years and is very simple and easy. From the time that I was a teenager, I have made lists and love to check them off. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and motivation to try to complete my tasks and stay focused.