No one can deny that we’re overwhelmed with choice for digital productivity tools these days. While it might seem that we’re lucky to have so much choice, too much choice can be overwhelming. And, if you’re like me, the more options you have, the more frustrating it feels that nothing is quite perfect for your needs.
Analog tools, on the other hand, are refreshingly simple. They’re more flexible than most digital tools, which means we can bend them to our needs in many ways, but doing so really just requires some time and a pen.
Though I still rely on digital tools for things like event reminders and recurring tasks, I find analog systems to be more flexible and more “me” when it comes to staying focused and getting more done.
These are three of the most useful analog systems I’ve come across for structuring my productivity—and improving it.
Best for: anyone who wishes they could write anything anywhere, but still have all that information organised
Perhaps one of the best-known analog productivity systems is the Bullet Journal. Originally created by designer Ryder Carroll to keep himself organized, and reportedly tweaked for his personal use for 20 years before being published, the Bullet Journal method is designed to work in any notebook you have.
The system provides the kind of organization you’d get from a pre-printed planner alongside the flexibility of working with a blank notebook. This flexibility means you can create the perfect productivity notebook to suit your needs.
Key to the Bullet Journal is the index, which works just as you’d imagine. It’s a list that resides in the front of your notebook showing the page numbers and titles or topics of every important thing you jot down. Which means yes, you need to number every page of your notebook for the Bullet Journal system to work, but you can grab the official Bullet Journal notebook made by Leuchtturm1917, or any other Leuchtturm1917 A5 notebooks to get pre-printed page numbers.
It might sound like a lot of hassle to number all your pages and index everything you write, but it’s key to why this system works so well. The index is used for anything you’ll return to again later, like design sketches, meeting notes, or a travel itinerary. Ephemera like daily to do lists won’t get indexed, but having the index means you can write anything you want on the next available page. There’s no need for notebook dividers or sections dedicated to particular types of information. The Bullet Journal’s index lets you mix everything in together, making it quick and easy to add something new, so long as you index what’s important so you can find it again later.
So what goes into a Bullet Journal? The original system includes a two-page monthly spread, with a list of dates and important events on one page, and a monthly to do list on the other.
It also includes daily pages. Each daily page starts at the next available space—a new page, if you like, or simply wherever you have room. After writing today’s date, the daily page is filled with a system called rapid logging. Carroll’s idea was that entering information in his Bullet Journal should be as fast and easy as possible to ensure he stuck with the system.
Rapid logging utilizes different bullet points to denote types of information. A new task, for instance, gets a dot, which is crossed through to create an “x” when the task is completed. A dash distinguishes notes from tasks. The Bullet Journal system, as you might have guessed from the name, is not just about managing tasks—it’s a journal, as well. It’s designed to handle note-taking, sketches, journaling about your day, and everything you need to get done.
Daily pages are as long or short as you need them to be. If some days take multiple pages, that’s fine. If other times you can fit two or three days on a single page, that’s fine too. The index means you can fill as many or as few pages with daily information without losing track of your meeting notes or project sketches.
Finally, the Bullet Journal also includes themed lists, called collections. Collections can be anything from shopping lists to books to read—they’re just a place to keep lists of items together. As with everything else in the system, collections can go anywhere, so long as you’re using the index, so you can always turn to the next available page in your Bullet Journal when you’re ready to start a new collection.
Best for: list-makers, or anyone who likes everything having its own place
As with the Bullet Journal system, Strikethru was created to fulfill the needs of its creator. Chris Kyle was in the process of shipping orders for a Kickstarter campaign, handling a hectic job, and caring for a new baby at home. To put it mildly, Kyle had a lot going on.
Strikethru is designed to be used with any notebook, like the Bullet Journal, but doesn’t use an index. Instead, Strikethru divides your notebook into different, themed sections.
At the front of your notebook you can include the optional calendar, which Kyle draws out roughly by hand. This offers a way to schedule daily, weekly, and monthly tasks ahead of time—something that can be tricky with analog systems.
Next is the most important section, which will take up the biggest chunk of your notebook: live lists. Your live list is the only place you ever actually work from. Strikethru was created to help Kyle get things done, so it’s designed with focus in mind. The live list is limited to nine items, to stop it getting overwhelming.
You can have a new live list per day, or you can work on the same one for several days, depending on how quickly you get through the tasks on your list.
The next section is called the vault, which is where you keep themed lists. Similar to Bullet Journal collections, these are simply lists of items that belong together. They could be books to read, gift ideas, weekly tasks, or monthly goals.
Tasks from the vault can only be worked on by first moving them to the live list. This is how the system enforces focus: you can only ever work on one of nine items on your live list, so you can’t get distracted by getting things done from your vault.
And finally, a small section at the back of your notebook is reserved for the dump, which is just a dumping ground for random notes. This is where you’d turn to when you’re on the phone and need to write down some quick details, or when you’re in a meeting and want to write some notes or share a quick sketch. Any tasks that end up in the dump (during a meeting, for instance) get transferred to your live list or your vault later, as you can’t work on tasks in the dump, either.
One of the most unique aspects of the Strikethru system is how it helps you move tasks to your live list. Each of the lists in your vault is limited to nine items, just like your live list, and each task is numbered from 1-9. This effectively creates an index of tasks. Each task has a unique identifier made up of its page number and task number. So task number three on page 200 would have the identifier 200.3, which you can write on your live list. This saves the effort of rewriting your tasks over and over, which can be a drawback of analog systems.
Best for: anyone who works better on paper pads or loose sheets, or doesn’t want anything besides today’s focus in their analog system
Neville Medhora, who founded the Kopywriting Kourse, says thousands of people have found his method useful since he shared it publicly. He’s created an analog system for getting a lot done, and says it works. Unlike the previous two methods, Medhora doesn’t use a notebook—he simply tears a sheet of paper off a notepad every day, and files it in a binder when the day is over.
Medhora’s process breaks the sheet of paper into different sections. The first is the date heading. Across the top of the page, Medhora writes the date.
Under the date, he lists all the things he wants to get done for the day. This task list can come from a brain dump, your digital to do list or calendar—whatever suits you.
The task list only takes up about 3/4 of the page width, leaving a skinny column down the right-hand side. The top of this right-hand column is where Medhora notes any appointments for the day. Then he divides the rest of this hourly tracker column into small boxes with a pen—enough to have one box per hour of the workday. As each hour passes, he writes in the corresponding box in the hourly tracker what he actually worked on. This process keeps him accountable and helps him see when he’s falling behind—and why.
Finally, the summary section at the bottom of the task list is just a small space where Medhora writes a note about how his day went, overall. This enforces a short period of reflection each day, which again keeps him accountable.
For a bonus hit of focus, Medhora often uses an extra sheet of paper that covers the task list section. He moves it down until just one task is showing, and holds it there with a piece of tape. When that task is done, he moves the sheet again, so the next task is visible. This stops Medhora getting distracted by other tasks he could be working on until his current task is completed.
Analog tools aren’t for everyone, but they have an undeniable benefit: they’re more flexible than most digital tools. A sheet of paper can work nearly any way you want it to, and you can change how it works on the fly.
While this is one of the main appeals for using analog task management systems, most of us like a little bit of structure, at least. While you’re figuring out what you need from a productivity system and whether analog tools can work for you, try one of these systems to help you figure it out. Sometimes it’s only by trying everything else that we realise the exact system we want—which is how all of these systems were borne in the first place.