Paper is King (for some)

As we all know, GTD is a tool-agnostic approach.  The tools you choose are up to you.  Some say it’s all got to be electronic. Others swear paper is king.  And many  of us will choose a hybrid of paper and digital. In our ongoing GTD Times series featuring GTD’er systems, we wanted to give you a peak into someone’s paper system.  Here’s Sam’s story (including some great photos of his setup):

Dear David Allen,

I discovered GTD about a year ago while listening to “The Sound of Young America” podcast interview of Merlin Mann. Jesse Thorne asked Merlin to produce his “Hipster PDA” and Merlin complied. I was intrigued, did the research, and bought Getting Things Done shortly thereafter. Since that time, I’ve been tweeking my GTD system.

My Ubiquitous Capture Device is a pocket-sized Moleskine Cahier notebook with a few index cards stuck in the pocket. Pictured on my Flickr account are photos of my set up at work. I like to think of my desk as a GTD cockpit.

The basic building block is my homemade 3×5 Context Card with a large check box to follow my progress and a series of check boxes to denote into which context the Next Action falls. I keep a template on my computer and print cards periodically to make sure I’m never without one. I also use the Project Planner and the Agenda cards from the DIY hPDA designed by Douglas Johnson. I took the PDF of those cards to a printing store and had a ton made shortly after I began GTD. I think I may have a three-year supply.

At my desk, I have three areas to organize my cards: a bill organizer that I use for a tickler file which I check each morning, bins for each context to keep my Context Cards sorted for easy access, and card bleachers from Levenger which I use to display my Agenda Cards. The bins are made out of plastic index card boxes cut into a “mini-Inbox”. They are labeled: @Computer, @Email, @Work, @Office, @Calls, Waiting, Inbox, and Reference.

I keep Agenda Cards for co-workers, committees, and meetings. When I need to call someone or know I’ll be around his/her office, I’ll grab the Agenda Card with their name on it and go. For on-the-go list management, I repurposed a Readbles brand pocket folio. I used post-it tabs to label the pockets, all of which are the same as the bins in my office except I replaced “Reference” with “Home.” If I need access to any of these Next Actions while I’m away from the office, I can store them in my folio. On the inside cover, I keep an icon key for my Next Actions that I found on the internet. I’d like to give credit to the person who originated the icons, but I can’t find the link again.

For all other paper stuff, I have a cubby hole set on my desk comprised of an Inbox, Pending, Home, Read/Review, Financial Filing portions. The Pending File holds reference materials that pertain to meetings listed on my Agenda Cards or referenced in my Tickler File.

I use both an electronic calendar and a paper calendar. I “sync” the two at the end of the day. I use Outlook for digital reminders. It also syncs with my iPod Touch. Right now, I’m using a Moleskine Cahier a la Mike Rhode for my paper calendar, but only until I can use my Moleskine 18-month Red Twin Planner.

I keep my Active Projects and Someday/Maybe lists in a binder with tabs deliniating Project Planner pages to collect ideas related to each. This comes in most handy when I’m at the end of my Next Actions lists and/or during the Weekly Review. I use pocket-sized Moleskine notebooks for meeting notes which I include in my Weekly Review. I use a post-it flag to mark the last reviewed page.

I’m looking for new ideas and ways to streamline without adding or eliminating too much. Each component of my workspace has a particular size and location for a particular purpose. It works well for me for now. I look forward to hearing your feedback and seeing what others post as well!

Here are photos of my setup.


Sam Mauck
Jackson, TN
Profession: Associate Dean of Students and Director of Career Development

If you would like to share your GTD system, please send your story and photos to us. We’d love to see how you’ve made the GTD approach work for you.

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  1. Love it! My husband is a contractor, and runs his whole business using 3×5 cards. It works so perfectly, trying to computerize it seems insane.

  2. Whenever I see photos of an analog GTD system my reaction is always, “Wow that’s cool”.

  3. Love it. I am on high-tech paper too. Its what works best for me (and the kids).

    Ieveloped a single page meeting note paper, day planner, week, month and year planner. Just use it or scrap it if needed, filing is easy per week and month. It means I can flexibly plan ahead etc.

    More in a post comming soon.

  4. Seems like a lot of maintenance…. syncing paper and digital calendars at the end of every day? I don’t have time for that much overlap.

  5. Josh J, thanks for the feedback. The only drawback with paper for me is that it doesn’t beep! Outlook is the best reminder system I’ve encountered. I’d love to hear suggestions from other paper users about how they manage their reminders.

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