• petersonmaryj

To Do Lists: Digital vs Handwritten

As an entrepreneur, you've probably realized by now, it's important to keep your tasks in line.

So let's take a brief moment to discuss how to keep your to do list: in a notebook or online?

Here's what my research has lead me to believe.


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Having grown up when the price of a laptop was still too high, I spent my childhood and adolescence making lists on paper. The normal pattern would be to start with a clean page and then go line by line, drawing boxes for myself and occasionally using specific colors to delimitate topics. Many Post-it tabs protrude from my old notebooks, a rainbow flag of past obligations.


Today, I keep a notebook on my desk and I write out my daily to do list. I also keep an online version, on ClickUp, so I can have an overview of my long term tasks and to easily communicate with other team members.


I find myself wondering if my two list system - writing and typing - is actually efficient.

Is two too many? Let's look at the benefits of each.


Handwritten Lists


While task management platforms offer many reasons to move your practice online, there are still many ways that handwritten lists outperform digital ones.


For starters, writing by hand is faster and easier - there are no tabs to click through or webpages to check. Just that sweet, old pen and paper.


This second argument is about gratification. It's just as fast to tick of a box on your TM platform as it is to cross off an item on your paper, but is it as satisfying? No. Certainly not.

I make items on my checklist specifically so I can cross them out. Sweet satisfaction.

writing, to do list, digital vs handwritten, womade, blog, womadebrussels

As for the more objective measures, writing by hand has a better retention rate on the long term. (+1 handwriting).


Whatsmore, as your pen slides across the page in all those familiar turns, it is a moment of heightened creativity and elastic thinking. An ideal condition for innovate solutions.


Lastly, as a modern person in the digital age, you probably spend a huge amount of time looking at a screen. Especially as an entrepreneur. Heavy screen time = my life. A paper list provides the eyes with less screen time, a momentary break to ease stimulation. Plus, most notebooks don't have a flashing tab that continually repeats Lola sent you a message. Thanks FB, but I'll get to it when I get to it.


As you can see, these are not insignificant reasons for one to record their to do list by hand:

  • Fast, easy, satisfying

  • Better retention rate

  • Heightened creativity & increased elastic thinking

  • Rest time for your eyes

  • Less distracting

Let's check out the benefits of Task Management software.



TM Software


Task Management software (eg. Trello, Asana, ClickUp, Nifty, etc.) have quite a few features that make them more efficient than traditional pen and paper lists on the long term.


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Trello's dashboard

The most obvious advantage with TM platforms is that everything is available online, so you always have access. No need to search through 40+ pages of your notes. Your ideas can be easily edited, be moved from project to project, duplicated, linked to important documents or sites, etc. It's all the joys of the digital age in one spot.


Equally appealing, the TM platforms make it easy to see long term progress on projects because you can create connected subtasks, assign them to individuals and add deadlines for them and yourself. And with each completed task, your whole team will be informed. As deadlines approach, the platform will automatically mark these tasks as more urgent and remind you to finish them soon.


Another feature that works particularly well for my brain is choosing backgrounds and color coordinating projects. If you have simultaneous projects, dividing subparts by color helps the brain to better distinguish them. Plus, it looks cool! The image above shows my Trello account for the Fringe Festival in 2019 theatre show where I worked. My color system: green tasks are related to info to research, blue to info that was 'good to keep in mind', purple to tasks internal to our group, orange for external people or groups, and yellow for social media reminders. The systems are as varied as there are people creating them.


Each site offers unique benefits, so do your research first and really think about which one best fits your organization style. Try not to do too many trial periods, as you will have to set up your entire system multiple times, which is a clunky, time-eating mess. If, after trying one for a few months, you realize it's actually hindering your progress, go ahead and switch to another.

They're meant to ease your workflow, not to slow you down.


The benefits to putting your to do list online are numerous and it's hard to argue that it's worse than paper ones:

  • Digital comforts: Available everywhere at anytime, easily copied, links to useful documents/sites, etc.

  • Easy to see long term progress

  • Whole team is simultaneously informed of new or completed tasks

  • The platform automatically warns you about upcoming deadlines

  • Easy color coordination


Combine the Two


Now, I have to be honest. I can't separate myself from both methods. I am a hardcore, down the middle-ist on this.


For meetings and organizing my daily life, I nearly always turn to my notebooks. Over the years, these pages show where I've been in life and they now have a special shelf in my bookcase where they will forever commemorate my years of work.


On long term projects, and especially on teams, I always go with TM software. I can see my deadlines approaching and so can my colleagues.



For someone like me, who wants both worlds, what are the options?


  1. Keep both - my desk always has a notebook and a computer tab open, so I can see short term and long term goals simultaneously. And so I can doodle while figuring out problems - it's how my brain works!

  2. Smart pens - these pens work probably as you'd expect; when you write, the pen records it and then digitizes it. Some must be used with a certain tablet, but they definitely give you good results. Have a look at some options.

  3. Handwriting to Text Apps - Write it out with your pen then take a picture, then the app creates a editable digital copy! Here's a little guide to some of the best ones.

Try them out! See what solution works best for you!


In the Future


This topic is certainly one that needs time to unfold.


For younger people, constantly raised around these tech-forward ideas, online platforms will undoubtably win out over time.


But does that mean the supremacy of the pen will end? Probably, but that doesn't mean you have to let it go. I certainly will not. As soon as possible, I look forward to embracing the new tech options that gives me access to both, but I will still keep journals to fill that shelf in my library.


What about you?

What's your preferred method?

Do you think one is better than the other?