Digital vs. Paper To-Do Lists

Photo by Trent Erwin on Unsplash

I suspect that there is a correlation between the type of person someone is and the way they keep track of their to-dos. The most organized person you know is probably that way for a reason–they keep track of everything they do in an orderly fashion that perfectly integrates with their life. The least organized person you know might keep track of their to-dos in their email inbox and on scraps of paper buried on their desk, countertops, and the back seat of their car.

There is no right or wrong way to handle a to-do list. Rather there is but it is on an individual basis. There is the right way for you to handle your to-do list and the right way for me to handle my to-do list.

I just haven’t found the right to-do list method for me yet.

Like a lot of people interested in increasing productivity, I sometimes get distracted by blog articles (not unlike this one) that explore ways to do more in less time. Because the sheer variety and volume of things that each of us has to do would require a million monkey typing on a million typewriters to cover, blog posts often focus on the lower hanging fruit of how best to keep track of all the things we have to do. This is one of those.

Digital to-do lists are inherently stressful particularly if you are always connected.

The not uncommon issue I have is that I am overwhelmed by the number of things I have to do. It is manageable on days where I am able to focus and check items off of my to-do list. It can be suffocating on days where interruptions are coming at me left and right and it seems as if my business and personal life are conspiring against me. On those days no matter what I do I cannot seem to get anything done–certainly nothing of substance–and my stress level increases which manifests itself in negative ways.

What furthers the stress is the fact that I am tracking my to-dos in so many places. Currently, I have them in:

  • Asana
  • Trello
  • Jira
  • Evernote
  • Gmail inbox
  • Outlook inbox
  • Outlook Tasks
  • Two notebooks
  • My head

I’m not fully utilizing Getting Things Done but I am pretty good about getting things I need to do out of my head and into a to-do list so the last place (my head) does not store that many things. However, the rest of them always seem to be filled to the brim.

Lately, it has occurred to me that the number of to-do lists I have is not my only problem. I am beginning to think that the medium for them is part of the problem as well as that digital to-do lists are inherently stressful particularly if you are always connected. Perhaps the medium in which you do your work (and which you communicate) is best kept separate from where you record your tasks and thoughts.

Due to this thought process, I am going to read the book on Bullet Journaling and give it a try. I am not going to be able to fully escape some of my to-do lists (give up email? Not a chance!) but my hope is that the bullet journalling process forces me to organize my to-dos better, and more importantly, prioritize them better–which is the true challenge when it comes to juggling multiple lists.

Ultimately I imagine there is a balance in managing tasks between digital and offline methods. I suspect that I’ll use a digital catch-all (maybe I’ll revisit the way I use Evernote) along with an offline to-do list. If I can reduce the number of places that to-dos are stored, as well as do a better job of identifying what is a task versus what is an idea, then I imagine I’ll reduce my stress and reclaim some of the focus that is lost with context switching and the feeling of to-do list dread.