The Power of Pen and Paper

What if a simple notebook and pen could revolutionize your productivity levels? Embrace the timelessness of an analog system.

The Power of Pen and Paper

In today's increasingly digital world, it is easy to get pulled into thinking we need certain apps to be productive. Although I currently enjoy a few apps (a full list coming soon), I started my productivity journey with just two items: pen and paper. Every so often, I ditch technology and go old school.

What Are Some Benefits of Pen and Paper?

While digital systems have many benefits, including automation (which is my favorite), the constant updates, notifications, and new tools can become too noisy. Going analog is flexible, easy to use, and personal.

Some of the biggest names in business including Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandberg, and Richard Branson carry a pen and notebook to jot down ideas, plans, to-dos, and anything that comes to mind. They must be onto something, right?

Even though the analog system is flexible and unstructured, it can be daunting, especially when first getting started. Whether you need a whole system with lots of structure or just to mark tasks, events, and notes, one of these methods should work for you!

Bullet Journal

Ryder Carroll created the bullet journal system in the late 1990s, but shared the method online in 2013. Doctors diagnosed Carroll with attention deficit disorder (ADD) as a child. He didn't want to let his learning disabilities stop him, so he sought to figure out a way to keep himself highly productive, despite having ADD. This method has been highly popularized on social media for its ability to be aesthetically pleasing, but it was designed to help people organize their lives while also being mindful.

Bullet journaling can be split into three parts: quick logging, topics and table of contents, and short-term and long-term logs.

Quick logging

Various types of bullets are used to differentiate between tasks, notes, and events. Add things as you think of them, or go back and write those notes down at the end of the day. I would recommend the former. The purpose of quick logging is to keep the task, note, or event straight to the point. Basically, the less effort you put into writing a task down, the more likely you will stick to what needs to be done because it doesn't feel like a chore from the start.

Topics and the index

I love lists. Anything from shopping lists, reading lists, grocery lists, and even this list makes me a little too happy. Any list you can think of can be made into a bullet journal topic. For example, the to-do list for every day is a topic, just label it with the date.

To make these topics easier to find, create a table of contents or an index that labels each topic with the associated page numbers. As you add more to the journal, write the topics and page numbers in the index.

Short-term and long-term logs

Whenever I implement this method, at the end of the notebook I always leave about 20 or more pages to jot down future events and deadlines, usually split into long-term and short-term goals on the left and right sides of the page, respectively. My short-term goals usually have more details than the long-term ones.

I've implemented bullet journaling, and it helped me get on track and figure out ways to plan out my time. I eventually added time blocking to the system, which boosted my productivity even more. There are so many ways to approach the bullet journal, so make it your own and do what makes the most sense to you!

Bullet journal
An example of a short-term and long-term log with bullet journaling.

The Dash/Plus System

Patrick Rhone created the dash/plus method, and from the beginning he called it a "markup system." This method focuses on bringing order to the notes and tasks at hand by using specific bullet points that start with a dash. The dash can then be made into a plus, arrow, or triangle.

  • Dash: incomplete item
  • Plus: completed item
  • Right arrow: waiting for another action before the item can be finished
  • Left arrow: item has been delegated to someone else
  • Triangle: note


The idea behind this method is simple: anything, whether it's a task or a note, that does not have a line through it is incomplete. If the task has been moved to the next day, an arrow denotes that.

I usually add color or exclamation marks to tasks that are urgent or require a lot of my energy. Things that are not as pressing usually go to the bottom of the list. It's that easy.

An example of the strikethrough method.

Which Method Do I Pick?

I have outlined three ways I began my journey to start working smarter. Eventually, I created a blend of them all to make it my own. I created various types of bullets that suited my needs (for example, an asterisk indicates urgency), but I cross each one out as I finish them. Make adjustments, try different things, and create your own approach that suits your workflow.

Have you experimented with any or all of these methods? If so, which system do you use?