The Organized Writer: Paper vs Software

by Jeff Abbott on December 14, 2008

Despite the advice I’ve been tossing out here, I won’t pretend to be an expert on all the various options for time management.
Because since GTD became popular, the options for keeping track of your time have exploded. (Even if you don’t want to use GTD, do a Google on “GTD paper” or “GTD software”–you will get dozens of results for products that you can investigate for your own planning needs.)
The primary difference between the tools seems to be format: paper vs. electronic. I’ve tried both, and as a writer, there are pros and cons to each. And at the end, I’ll give you the best advice that I ever got about starting an organizational system for your writing.

The ease of paper is its main selling point. There is NOTHING to learn, basically. You need to remember something, you write it down. Done. No bringing up a program, typing in your task, mousing to file it or group it with other related tasks.
The hardest thing you do is flip to the right page.
Another advantage of paper is its flexibility. If you use a binder system like Filofax, you can arrange (and rearrange) the paper to suit you perfectly. It’s very customizable. You can even design your own forms (and many people have, at sites like, which you can download for free). Paper can be whatever you need it to be.
Paper also gives you an easy to follow history of what you’ve done. Finish a task, mark it out with a highlighter (my preferred way), you know what you’ve accomplished. You check off a task in a software solution and normally it vanishes from view. Of course, you can see your lists of completed tasks, but it’s somehow not the same as the satisfaction of crossing it off on paper.
Paper also is less of an interruption on one’s writing work. If, while writing, I think of something to do later (a research question, for instance) I jot it down in the planner. I don’t have to open up a software program, type the reminder, and leave working in Word.
The first problem with paper is that it can be bulkier and not as portable as a phone, which can be a repository for all your tasks, calendars, and such. If you go for a slimmer paper solution: like a mini Filofax (the smallest they make) or a pocket Moleskine notebook or planner, you sacrifice writing space for portability. And most people generally always have their phone–it can get hard to remember to take a planner with you (if it will even fit in your pocket) when you’re on the go. (I do take my bigger planner with me sometimes while running errands, but usually just slip the buying list out to take with me and leave the planner in the car.)
But the biggest problem with paper is that there is no backup. You lose, you lose big time. I’ve never lost a planner but I know people who have, and it’s a disaster. You could do backups by making copies or scans of your pages now and then, but that’s a pain. I never do it. I guess I live dangerously.
Here are some interesting paper solutions that might spark ideas:
Filofax for GTD (obviously, this could be adapted for non-GTD use) and Philofaxy (discussion and ideas about how to get the most out of your Filofax)
Miquelrius master notebook
Customized planner in Moleskine
And of course, there are good planners from Moleskine, Filofax, and Quo Vadis. You can check out The Daily Planner and Levenger for good paper planners.
Software’s great advantage for planning is that you can very easily see and group information as your needs change. For instance, you can see your calendar in a day view, week view, or month view, with a click. You can’t do that without buying three separate paper calendars and maintaining them. You can categorize your tasks (say everything related to your search for a literary agent or finishing the research for your novel) so they can be easily grouped together.
With many software solutions, you can sync all your appointments, tasks, and projects to your phone or PDA, so you can keep your life in your pocket when you’re out and have all your information at your fingertips. As well, software is searchable: you can easily find what you’ve done in the past.
And software can be backed up. You can even use a web-based solution so you can access your data from any computer or phone.
Software planners can interconnect (or even be part of) your email solution. So you can easily turn emails into tasks. I know that I get a lot of to-dos sparked by emails. With a software solution, you can turn that email into a trackable to-do with a keystroke. As well, software can remind you–via alarms or popups–that it’s time to do a task. Paper, for good or bad, doesn’t nag.
You can also very easily share software calendars with other people in your life–perhaps a way to make clear that your writing time is sacred.
The problem with software is that there is a learning curve. Some products, such as OmniFocus and Life Balance, have considerable power but also considerable learning curves. It’s a personal decision as to whether this is worth the time and effort.
Software can also be decidedly more expensive than paper, especially if you decide you need a PDA or smartphone in the mix.
It’s still much easier to write a note on paper than it is to tap it out on a phone or PDA. For a writer, who needs to be able to easily capture an idea whenever it strikes, this has to be a consideration.
There are literally hundreds of task managers/software planners out there, but here are some to consider:
Remember the Milk–a very popular web-based task manager that will run on any computer
OmniFocus–for Macs only, a GTD-inspired (although they say you don’t have to use GTD with it) task manager that is very popular–productivity gurus like Merlin Mann were involved in its design–but also requires what I feel is a steeper learning curve than I currently have patience for
LifeBalance–it runs on Palm, iPhone, Windows, and Mac, a somewhat eclectic time manager that not only tracks your tasks but helps you (supposedly) achieve more balance in your life. I know people who swear by it, but for me, it was too much.
Microsoft Outlook–haven’t used it in five years, but I remember it had calendar and tasks, might be all you need
Microsoft Entourage–basically, Outlook for Mac, although the programs are not identical. I really like Entourage’s notification system (of when I should be doing something I’ve put on my calendar) and its MyDay view of upcoming tasks and appointments/commitments on the calendar. I do put select events that I need to be prompted about into Entourage so I don’t forget.
iCal–Apple’s own calendar program that comes free with Macs. Very basic and easy to use.
I use a paper system, a Filofax A5. I keep it simple–calendar, project lists, lists of books to read and movies to see, a place to capture ideas. That’s it. Nothing fancy.
I am sometimes tempted to move to an electronic system because I like the flexibility, especially with the calendar, and it would be nice to have all my stuff on my iPhone. If I did move to software, I would use Microsoft Entourage because I’ve used it before and I think the learning curve would be a lot less than some of the others. Also, I like being able to link emails to tasks, which cannot be done quite as easily in some of the other programs that don’t include an email client. However, the iPhone doesn’t have a tasks list (by far its biggest omission).
Whichever kind of system you opt for, please take this one bit of advice: KEEP IT SIMPLE. This cannot be stressed enough. Do not try to get too fancy at first (or ever). You will waste a lot of time, and if you’re spending any of your writing time on this instead of writing you will hate yourself in the morning. There is no perfect system. You don’t need bells and whistles and expensive paper or a fountain pen or the world’s most expensive phone. You just need a system that is easy enough for you to use and stick with.
All you need is a system that helps you keep your forward momentum on your writing, and gives you the assurance that you have your time under control. The whole point, remember, is that you get your creative work done.

    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    Kirk December 14, 2008 at 10:58 am

    Sounds like you should check out the hipster PDA:
    I have been using OmniFocus for a while. It’s good for certain projects I manage (documentation) where several people are involved. I think it’s overkill, however, for projects where it’s only you involved, unless you want to GTD them to death, breaking them up into a plethora of actions. I find that only works for the most complex projects; I don’t see how it would help writing books though.

    Jeff Abbott December 14, 2008 at 11:44 am

    Kirk: The Hipster PDA’s not really for me; no calendar. And since I’m mostly at my desk, its main advantage of portability isn’t a big concern.
    re Omnifocus, it’s interesting that they suggest “writing a novel” on their main product page as one of the possible uses. I have OmniFocus and have test-driven it, and don’t think it’s overkill for one person, but I got too frustrated with it. I hated putting in stuff and then not being able to easily find it. If I needed something that worked today with my iPhone, I’d use OF and invest the time to learn it, but that investment in time is not worth it to me right now. I think a simple system is the best, at least for me.

    Jeremy James December 14, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    I’m really glad I found your blog. Great stuff. I am a total geek when it comes to paper and pen organization / creativity.
    Just wanted to let you know: your RSS feed isn’t formatted properly in my feed reader (google reader). No paragraph breaks: one long block of text. Should be an easy fix. I prefer to read blogs in a feed reader, so I hope you can address this. Keep up the good writing and useful blogs.

    Ann Victor December 14, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    After losing all my data on my electronic planner not once, but twice, because of a software malfunction, I’ll stick to paper.
    Besides, as you said, there is someting satisfying about crossing off a completed task with one bold stroke. Deleting a task with a click isn’t quite the same.

    AS Meredith December 14, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Wow, you are one obsessive researcher (and I mean that in a good way.) I’ve used a Filofax for almost thirty years now and I get the feeling you get way more out of yours than I do out of mine… I will look at some of your links to see about squeezing some mileage out of that baby.

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