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4 Fantastic Reasons Why GTD Converts Should All Start with Paper Systems


As I’ve said in the past, I was an analog GTDer (but have since converted to a kick-ass digital solution). I used paper products for absolutely every aspect of GTD when I started and found the experience to be extremely valuable. So much so, that I’m going to tell you now why every single person who chooses to embark on the journey that is GTD should do so with a pen and a notebook instead of a stylus and a PDA.

Think about driving for a moment. Many people (myself included) learned to drive in a car with an automatic transmission. Move the little needle above ‘D’ and stand on the gas – you’re moving. But what if your buddy (who drives a car with a manual transmission) breaks his leg or – for whatever reason – suddenly needs you to drive him to the hospital in his car? Sure, you could clunk yourself down the road, stalling the car at every red light, but you’d eventually get there. But wouldn’t you rather spend 10 seconds getting to know how sensitive the clutch is, then driving it like you were born to?

I realize this is another one of those hyperbolic examples for which I’m known, but the basic principle applies. If you don’t know how to work with what are likely to be the most available tools, you’re overall effectiveness is in question. What happens if you drop your Palm Pilot in the toilet? Or if you leave it on the cross-town train? What then?

Well, aside from losing your precious lists (and you should really have a backup, anyway), you’re going to be temporarily relegated to the world of paper. When this happens (and notice I say ‘when’, not ‘if’), will you be the guy who can’t drive the stick-shift? Or will you be the guy who slips right into the completely different situation while remaining totally comfortable?

The bottom line is this: you need to be flexible. If you only know how to drive an automatic, you’re a liability to yourself and your stick-shift-driving friends. If you only know how to ‘do’ GTD using a computer or other digital medium, the same risks apply. Here are my 4 reasons why every GTD newcomer should do paper first:

  1. Working with the Bare Minimum Teaches You Where Needs Lie – When spending time with a paper system, you’ll realize quickly what your specific needs are. Whether that means an effective means of reminding yourself of upcoming obligations or events or just that you find it easier to capture things using a computer program instead of a pen and paper. The point is, you’ll see which parts of the system comfortably convert into something digital (if any – a great many GTD Masters are all-paper folk).
  2. Fewer dependencies – The more gadgets, websites and applications you depend on to really get going with GTD, the worse off you’ll be. Everybody knows I love stikkit, but it doesn’t fit in my pocket the same way a stack of index cards would. The idea here is to use a system that, although possibly not optimal in your particular case, will be available when you need it. Also, you want to have the knowledge that – should anything happen to your precious Motorola Q – you can borrow a pencil from the gas station and maintain your system on the backs of envelopes and fast food receipts (should it come to that).
  3. Challenge Yourself – Honestly, getting into this whole GTD thing – you didn’t expect it to assimilate gently into your existing patterns and practices. You did this so you could get your poop together, and in the process, shake things up a bit. A paper setup will do just that – cause you to work in survival mode instead of that of a pampered prince/princess. You’ll need to change the way you react to new inputs, as well as how you track the status of projects and obligations. Hell, you might even find this all-paper bit to be just the refresher you needed and decide to stick with it long-term!
  4. Portability, Portability and – oh yes – Portability – In my humble opinion, this is far and away the best reason to do paper. As I’ve said, web applications and spreadsheets don’t come with a handy spot to hang your pen. For thos solutions to work, you pretty much need to be near a computer a good chunk of the time. While this might work down the road, at first you’re going to be second guessing yourself every time you’re at the dry cleaner and have a few minutes to knock out a few @phone items. For the paper GTD hacker, these items will likely be sitting comfortably in their back pocket, just waiting to be accomplished.

As per usual, this is just one fellow’s opinion. Some folks go straight for the ready-baked online solution and others completely invent their own from scratch. And those people get things done just as effectively as the moleskine-toting purist. You just want to have as big a productivity toolbox as you can for the times when your smartphone lands business-end-first in the swimming pool.

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