Getting Things Done

How I survived a world filled with productivity apps, and returned to paper notebooks

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For the past twenty years, I have been embroiled in an ongoing battle for the heart and mind of my organised self. The battle lines are clear —my heart loves paper notebooks, handwriting, nice pens, and the act of recording thoughts, ideas, and tasks in neat little lists that look just so, whereas my mind likes web and mobile “productivity” applications — where I can endlessly categorise, filter, sort, search, and analyse every passing thought.

My love affair with paper — and it is a love affair — began while commuting back and forth to London on trains many years ago. When not reading banned literary works (a constant source of fascination, if only to raise the eyebrows of fellow commuters), I found myself emptying my head into Moleskine notebooks. I had never kept a diary as a child, and can’t recall where or when the first Moleskine came into my possession. I imagine it had something to do with the photographs people posted of notebook pages that swept the social internet during its formative years — filled with wonderful works of art. I had once been an art student and perhaps considered “I could do that”.

Here’s the thing that artists never tell you about their craft — it’s mentally exhausting. The only way I have ever been able to explain it to anybody is to liken drawing or painting with doing mathematics. And that’s why my Moleskine notebook never became filled with wonderful works of art.

I can still remember the first time I saw an iPhone. While spending countless hours on trains, I had befriended one or two people — an astounding feat, given that British people tend to fear any and all forms of interaction while travelling on public transport. The friend in question had recognised me by the knitted Griffindor scarf I wore while commuting one winter. It turns out she was a reader of my other half’s crafting blog and had seen a photo of the scarf some days earlier. A nervous email exchange followed, after which we became perhaps the most unlikely friends in the known world.

One day while travelling towards London she happened to get on the same train carriage as me, sat down opposite me with a smug smile, and retrieved a small drawstring bag from her pocket. After theatrically opening the drawstring, she slid a gloss black rounded rectangle from the bag. It was the iPhone 3a. I probably started hyperventilating.

Over the previous year, I had become the proud owner of my first Macbook. Back in those days, Macs were more of a lifestyle choice than a reasoned investment. They were (and still are) ridiculously expensive, were barely compatible with anything else, and had a laughably small selection of software available for them. But they were beautiful and lusted after by writers and bloggers the world over.

The Mac introduced me to several pieces of software that almost refactored the way my brain worked. Omnifocus and Bento turned me into a productivity junkie almost overnight. I went as far as reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done”, and spent endless hours curating my life into one hundred and one neat lists — things I knew, things I didn’t know yet, things I needed to know, things I needed to do — it was endless.

Imagine being able to carry such power to obsess around with you — available in your pocket at a moment’s notice to record every thought and idea. Within weeks, I too had an iPhone 3a. I’m pretty sure people still leave the reality distortion field of Apple stores with their phones held aloft like awards won in “The Legend of Zelda” — complete with orchestral fanfares and ethereal light shows.

After years of staring at small rectangular screens, re-arranging notes, and migrating from apps that were the best thing ever last month to even better apps this month, I have come to realise that it’s all an enormous lie. I remember seeing a de-motivational poster some years ago on the internet proclaiming that there’s “good money to be made by being a part of the problem”. I can’t help thinking that productivity solutions are exactly that — a part of the problem.

We become so busy tinkering, arranging, categorising, sorting, filtering, and filing away our thoughts, ideas, and plans, that we forget to live.

I’m not entirely sure when I saw my first Bullet Journal. I suspect history might have repeated itself — in the same way that Moleskine notebooks once swept across the likes of Pinterest and Instagram with inspirational double-page spreads, photographs of pages filled with a grid of small dots began to appear — and rumours of an epic life-hack began to percolate to the farthest corners of the Internet.

I bought my first Bullet Journal from a local stationer — along with some nice pens to write in it. I had recently begun working in Germany, so was commuting every other week — living from a suitcase, and spending hours watching the world whistle past from 36,000 feet. I needed some way of organising an avalanche of notes from meetings. I had gone out intending to purchase a new Moleskine notebook but spotted the Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks I had heard so much about while trying to decide between wide and narrow-ruled pages. I convinced myself that dots might be better.

For the last two years, the little black Bullet Journals have accompanied me everywhere. They record what I’m doing throughout the day, and what I need to do tomorrow — and that’s pretty much it. No doodles, no drawings — just simple lists. An accountable log of tasks written at the start of each month and day, ticked off through the day and appended to throughout. Nothing more, nothing less.

Of course, I have returned occasionally — tinkered — with Wunderlist, Todoist, Evernote, Notion, Microsoft To-Do, and a hundred other applications — but when it comes down to it they all require so much effort — and the Bullet Journal requires almost none.

Written by

Software and web developer, husband, father, cat wrangler, writer, runner, coffee drinker, retro video games player. Pizza solves everything.

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