Paper + Mind Map + Smartphone

It’s a fair question to ask a productivity junkie what systems they use themselves. And while I love my system like a friend (it has taken years of research to find one that has stuck), I was cautious in posting it here, until today.

Partly because it’s such an important point to make that we are all different people. Each of our own ‘best’ systems will depend whether we are an intuitive or rational thinker, a visual or textural one, or if we spend our days in one location, or across many. Do we like stationary shops, or computer games? Do we have strong willpower, or weak? Are we a rebel or do we love routine? It will depend on outside factors too – such as the hardware we have access to, and what types of work we are responsible for.

I realized today that my system could be used to discuss some of the underlying principles that make either good or bad techniques. So here it is. Even if you find only one trick or principle you come back to, I’d be happy. I would also like to hear comments from anyone who has tried any of the techniques mentioned.

So here it is – my system – in all it’s clunky detail.

This system uses

  • A Gmail account
  • The Captio App for the iPhone or similar
  • Smartphone or Desktop Mind Map software (I use SimpleMind+), or pen and paper
  • A good quality A4 (standard letter) folder. A folded piece of cardboard will do – something to loosely hold papers in
  • Plenty of standard letter paper (I always have the better half of a ream handy)
  • Various stationary: pens, a red pencil, a yellow fluorescent highlighter, clear tape, stapler



The key question that led to me settling upon my system (after close to twenty years of searching) was ‘what systems have lasted the test of time… perhaps for years… or even for just one particular project?’.

Thinking about this has helped me zero in on the tools that might uniquely suit my personality, the types of work I do, and my daily routine. It is only afterwards that I have been able to logically understand why these particular approaches might work for me.

Once my basic tools were identified, I still needed ‘joining’ technologies, to blend these approaches into one seamless work flow. After over twelve months of successful use of my current system, I’m confident it will largely continue to work for me, morning til night, with only minor adjustments.

One thing. This system doesn’t get any points for simplicity! It is complex combination, with its sections held together with plenty of metaphorical scotch tape. But it uses a number of tool I feel genuinely fondly towards – a good test in itself.


Many productivity experts have noted that as new tasks most often arrive via email, considering email as within your to-do system is a must.

As the tinkerers’ email client of choice, Gmail has a good number of customizable options. There is not much unusual I do with my email, other than the good basic habits that most of you will no doubt have learned for yourselves.

  • Quick replies are done straight away. All I need to do is think about how ‘heavy’ they will seem if I have to start them later on, to make me happy to do them straight away.
  • Non-urgent emails (such as newsletters) are automatically filtered via ‘skip the inbox’, and placed in labeled folders. This is important, as I can then read them when it suits me, instead of randomly letting them disrupt my workflow.
  • Longer tasks that need to be done later on are assigned a star. A single red star, for all you Gmail star freaks… using a range of different color stars gradually phased itself out of my system.


How do I capture new to-dos when I am out of the office? Since the most reliable tool I always have handy is my iPhone (and Gmail is the non-paper part of my system) I use the Captio app. It sends me a lightning fast email, with just a few clicks. Using Gmail filters again, I automatically give all my incoming Captio emails a red star when they arrive. So – with a short note and a ‘send’ – my task automatically enter my to do system.

Extra tip: I put Captio in one of the four most valuable bottom icon spaces (where the main tools like Camera, Safari, Phone or Messages usually live), to open and send tasks super quickly.

A Paper To-Do list

Despite my love of Gmail and my iPhone (and despite paper’s inability to be in all places, at all times) I still find paper the superior To Do format. Why?

  • A screen is a very small – and very unnatural – part of the world. Paper lives in a much bigger, concrete, and more intuitive place. I ‘trust’ things in the real world much more than the on screen world, if that makes sense.
  • Closed apps are forgotten, windows disappear if another covers them, etc. Whereas paper lists will still be on the table when your computer is out of order. Paper somehow has a continual presence – I guess because we are bodies, twenty four hours a day.
  • Paper is simply better for longer lists. I can go through a fifty page paper document without bothering too much, whereas scrolling through lists longer than about 30 or so items is endlessly frustrating. On a phone it is impossible to quickly compare items a long way apart, and also difficult to quickly move things around (using a highlighter or pen to draw attention to things on paper is much quicker).
  • If I am worried about losing, or not having access, to my paper list I can merely photograph it with my iPhone.

There are small ‘tricks’ that make my current paper lists far superior to the sort I used to keep years ago, so I’ll mention them here.

~ It Is Time Based

No more do I keep lists that pretend to go on endlessly into the future. This is one of the key lessons I have learned over time. ‘Timeless’ lists are really impossible things, at once abstract and unnecessarily bloated. I think they run counter to the practical, mission-based way our brains like to think about things. We have evolved to get safely to the next season’s camp, not to plan out everything for the infinite future.

I pick a deadline (say, the due date for a large project, or the start of a trip), that is anywhere from one to three months into the future. This time length I find is the right balance between urgency, and not being too stressful. The key thing for me is to find an end date that seems external and unmovable. I might even use my partners’ deadlines, if none others are available to me.

I think for a successful list this adds a few important things. When you think of a new task, it is very easy to determine if it belongs on this list, or the next one. If it isn’t really necessary to do before my ‘deadline’ it goes into a new list (a ‘Sometime/Maybe’ list – that I draw my next deadline list from).

Another important thing is that tasks that make it onto this list suddenly have a new urgency. They are visible, separated from the dross by being there. They are finite in number, and I know they all need to be done. Unlike before, I enjoy doing these tasks – because I know there is actual free time waiting for me if I complete them (rather than just more jobs).

~ It is Divided Into Three Columns

If you divide your page into three columns, you won’t be tempted to make long, confusing task names. Short and sweet is the key for me.

~ It is Neat

I find neatness is important for hand written lists, if only for legibility and speed. If your handwriting is too rushed or scribbly, using capitals works well. Asterisks (as bullet points) work for me, too.

I also use ‘elegant erasing’, to make sure finished tasks are well separated from any yet to be completed jobs. (I like to turn them into blobby, spirally, slug-like forms.)

But – and this is another argument for 1-3 month lists – this list is temporary, so ultimately who cares how neat it is? ‘Endless’ lists used to become more and more disheartening as they became increasingly messy. A messy list now is a real sign that I am making progress. It spurs me on to find new targets amongst it, and to complete them.

~ It Lives in an Elegant folder

I like my papers in the nicest folder I can find, so I enjoy looking at and using them. You can find a number of great, simple folders online (I’ll find some links). The ones I like using have no pockets, they are really just a piece of folded cardboard covered in a nice material. Making one for yourself is another option (which can also help obtain a greater sense of non-arbitrariness and ownership over your system).

The other advantage of having a very simple folder is that you can add and remove outstanding bills, letters and notes, without needing to manually write them into your list. Just throw them in and remove them when they have been processed.

The Hand Drawn Calendar

In the same way that I like medium term lists, I like to have a medium term calendar, covering the same period. I hand draw my calendars, taping them into a long ‘monthless’ strip. I’ll try to scan one in so you can try it as a template if you wish.

I find months arbitrarily divisive, and visually looking at a long strip helps me to quickly take in how long I have to get everything done. Smaller deadlines are usually circled in pen, and colored in with a red pencil.

The Day Sheet

I’m sure many of you already do this too, but tit still feels important to success. Every day I take a fresh, unlined piece of paper, write the day at the top (Monday, Friday, etc), and write a list of tasks I need to get done that day.

I have a ‘template’ page that reminds me of the different types of tasks (meditation, long term tasks, starred gmail, etc.) that should be included on my page, like a balanced diet. I also have a motto I can copy in if I feel like it (currently: ‘It’s harder to think about it than to do it’). Sometimes I print off a new template and fill it in, other times I just copy jobs using an old template.

I keep my old day sheets, and I transfer overdue things into the current day sheet, until they are completed.

The key is to see and remember everything that needs to be done, which you then improvise from (a little like practicing your scales, which is the only way to do guitar solos).

The Mind Map

It’s hard to know where a system ends, but my Mind Map software is also intimately connected with what I do each day.

Whilst writing down goals is important, I’ve found written goals have a way of fossilizing, seemingly forever remaining undone. Filling in the necessary steps to complete them – and setting aside time in your day to work towards them – is vital for making progress.

Fortunately, the plotting and planing part can be easily done on mind maps and are addictive to do, especially if they are intuitive to edit (like SimpleMind+ is).

I used to play games on my iPhone. Now my Mind Map is the most fun game of all – partly because it is a real life adventure. Just don’t be afraid to tinker with well made maps – the usefulness is in the doing.


How to remember all of these things? My day template helps.

Besides, I like the ‘Don’t Break the Chain’ method – of doing a work on everything each day. I use Lift to remind, chart and reward my progress with this. Simply downloading and trying it yourself will show you why. Its fidelity to research and elegant minimalism really sets it apart from most other apps.

There are other things that are important to remember each day (such as larger priorities like family, friends, and community) but I will leave that for an eBook I’m writing about how different To Do Lists can help any personality live the life they want. The above will give you a general idea of my approach.


Overall Pros

  • I hope the pros are evident in the above round-up. Each element is chosen to suit a particular location and personality trait, where other methods have failed.


  • It is a complex system, with many things you have to remember. It makes obeying reminders like my day template a must.


Many of these elements are available in a simple diary or book that can be carried everywhere, if you want to keep it all un-electronic.

Our Rating

The one I choose, so naturally I rate this one the most highly!

Your Thoughts

Have you tried this system? What are your experiences working with it? Any pros, cons, variations, or tips?

One Response to “Paper + Mind Map + Smartphone”

  1. J says:

    Hey Dan,
    In your post about pictures of to do list that work, the second one (the listen to your crazy successful brother system) intrigued me and I was looking through this site to try to find that follow up post, but haven’t found it. If your not going to make a post, could you tell me what his system was with the A4 paper, I mean it looked like a disaster but as a fellow travel agent I’d love to know how he was doing it.


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