Getting Things Done is a great productivity system for writers and for anyone who wants to become more creative and productive.
It’s effective, but it does take some time to get to grips with.
Many of them work just fine, but if you’re trying to learn GTD while working in a live environment, it’s hard to beat pen and paper.
Lots of writers also say they prefer to take notes using pen and paper and then gravitate to digital tools later on.
This is why I turned a Moleskine notebook into a tool for getting things done.
- A standard, hard-covered, large, ruled 240 page Moleskine notebook like this
- A labeller (optional), I used a Brother P-Touch Labelmaker
- Small sticky multi-coloured labels like these
- A pen, the Pilot Precise V5 Stick Rolling Ball is good
Setting Up the Moleskine Notebook for GTD
Now, number every page on the right hand side of the Moleskine notebook. There’s no need to number pages on the left. You should reach 244.
These numbers will allow you to cross-reference notes and divide your book into sections. Next, take six of the multi-coloured labels. I labelled these and placed them on the following page numbers:
- Notes (page 1)
- Next Actions (page 100)
- Waiting For (page 150)
- Calendar (page 170)
- Someday/Maybe (page 200)
- Active Projects (page 220)
You can put the rest of the labels in the sleeve at the back of the Moleskine notebook for future use.
Processing Your Inbox and Next Actions
I found the Notes and Next Actions pages filled up quickly. This is where the advantage of sticky labels came into play. After one month, I moved my Notes label to page 30, after month two I moved it to page 60. This way, my notebook became dynamic and searchable.
I also moved the Next Action Label from one page to another as the notebook filled up. However, I kept the other labels on their original pages as these sections did not fill up as quickly.
How To Take Notes With a Moleskine
When taking notes, date every page and draw a line down the page, one inch away from the margin on the right hand side.
This is a good place to record or identify actions in your Notes section, which you can act on or transfer to your Next Actions section as soon as it’s convenient.
It’s also a good idea to the record page numbers of other relevant entries that you may want to refer to. This saves time when you are reviewing your notes and searching for Next Actions during your weekly review.
Managing Your Calendar
I still used Outlook to record appointments while using this Moleskine notebook. That said, each Friday I wrote out the times of my appointments in the Calendar section of the Moleskine. I found this exercise helpful as it forced me to mentally engage with the events of the coming week. I tried keeping all my project details in the Active Project list but this proved too difficult.
Instead, I resorted to maintaining a simple list of my Active Projects that I could review at a glance. I kept the details of these projects in their relevant files on my computer or desk.
Sticky notes are a nice optional extra if you want to amend or add to an entry. You can keep a small book of these in the sleeve of your notebook too.
Sometimes, I found that the page dimensions of this Moleskine felt a little restrictive. This was particularly true when I was transcribing long passages during meetings or developing a mind map.
However, this small Moleskine notebook is durable and easy to carry around. I was able to fit it in my laptop case and it lasted me about three months. When I was finished with it, I dated the cover and archived it.
Improving the Notebook
For my second GTD Moleskine, I bought a larger, soft extra-large book from the Book Depository for EUR14.10. The build quality of this notebook isn’t as good as the hardcover one and there are 192 rather than 240 pages.
However, the page dimensions are large enough for mind maps and longer transcriptions. I also added a few new labels to this notebook. These were:
- A Miscellaneous section: in the end I never used this section and I removed the label.
- An Agenda section: my role at the time required me to attend a lot of meetings for which I regularly made out agendas. It made sense to have a dedicated section for Agendas.
- A Project Support section: I wrote phone numbers, notes and other miscellaneous details about my projects in this section.
Why Didn’t I Use an App For This?
The simple answer is, I could have (and today I do). However, using pen and paper while getting grips with GTD means you don’t have to learn how to use a new software package at the same time.
This method is great if you’re a writer who loves and uses pen and paper everyday. Relying a Moleskine notebook as your primary GTD too will also give you a screen break, but it’s more work to maintain. Also, pen and paper lacks the convenience of search.
No system is perfect though. What’s more important is that you pick a productivity system that helps you become more creative and productive and then use it.
Please let me know me know what you think of my system and how you use GTD in the comments section below.
I love these notebooks, but I know many people say they are expensive. So, I put together this short, free guide with 8 alternatives to Moleskine notebooks for you.
This is an update of a post I wrote in 2013.