The Pros and Cons of Paper To-Do Lists


August 13, 2021

paper to-do lists - pros and cons

If you’ve ever been overwhelmed by a list of things you need to do, you might sit down and write them on a paper to-do list.

It’s the easiest way to start organizing what you have to do:

  • Breaking down big projects into manageable tasks.
  • Prioritizing what is most urgent over what can wait.
  • Setting yourself up for success and better productivity.

Paper to-do lists are the obvious choice for productivity when all you have available is pen and paper.

But if you find yourself making new lists every day or still struggling with your workload, it’s worth stepping back and asking if a paper to-do list system is the right pick for you.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to paper vs. digital productivity systems. But you might find there are more benefits of to-do lists organized in a digital app rather than with paper and pen.

Here’s our take on the advantages and disadvantages of to-do lists on paper vs. using an app.

Pros of a Paper To-Do List System

pros of paper to-do list system

These days, a lot of writing happens on computer keyboards and mobile device screens. But there are still those of us who revert to paper and pen when it’s time to make a list.

There are plenty of benefits to keeping to-do lists on paper, but here are a few that stand out when it comes to the digital vs. paper to-do lists question.

Paper Is Convenient

It’s hard to beat the convenience of a paper to-do list.

Fans of paper lists can jot down ideas in notebooks, on index cards, sticky notes, scrap paper and even napkins if you’re really in a pinch.

You can take your list with you anywhere without worrying about low battery warnings, spotty reception, or the hunt for free wifi.

It’s a Great Experience

Despite years of typing and tapping on digital devices, some people still prefer the experience of pen on paper.

A paper to-do list has an intuitive user experience that’s hard to beat. Plus, there’s that great feeling of accomplishment that comes from crossing off items on your list.

Free of Tech Hassles

There’s no worry of platform compatibility, app updates, data backups or other tech hassles when you’re using a paper list.

Pretty much any writing implement can write on any kind of paper, in handwriting that will always be legible to you.

If you get tired of cards or sticky notes and decide to upgrade to a to-do list notebook or even switch between notebooks, it’s no problem. You just copy over what’s needed.

Less Screen Time

With so much time spent sitting at a computer desk or hunched over a mobile screen, it can be nice to take a break.

Paper will give you a nice ergonomic break from your day-to-day patterns and a mental break from digital distractions that can pop up as you’re managing your electronic list.

Paper to-do lists are also definitely easier on the eyes — no fonts settings to bump up for readability and no blue glare to give you insomnia.

Good for Processing

Working on paper causes you to slow down and think carefully about what were you doing, which is probably one of the key benefits of to-do lists kept on paper.

Whether you need to make a decision, prioritize, plan ahead, or simply commit to taking action, putting pen to paper is hard to beat for sketching out ideas and focusing on the task at hand.

Cons of Keeping a To-Do List on Paper

cons of to-do lists on paper

A paper to-do list might seem old-fashioned to you if you’re used to using technology tools.

When thinking about whether to make your to-do list paper or digital it’s important to consider these negatives.

Not as Portable

One of the most obvious disadvantages of a to-do list on paper is that it’s not as portable as a to-do list that’s saved to your phone or hosted in the cloud.

A paper list will always be another physical item you’ll need to keep up with and worry about, along with your keys, phone, wallet and other necessities. 

Plus, you’ll need to make sure you have a pen on hand or maybe even a pencil sharpener.

No Backups

Unlike a digital to-do list organizer, there are no backups for a list kept on paper. There is only one copy, so if it’s lost, it’s lost forever.

It’s easy to forget the notebook with your list at home, not having it when you need it. Worse yet, you could lose it on a train or in a coffee shop.

If you want to make sure your master list is safe, you’ll need to make a copy and then keep track of the copy and update its contents along with your working list. 

Frequent Rewrites

A paper to-do list will require more effort to maintain over days and weeks than some other productivity alternatives.

You may need to rewrite your list every day. And if priorities change, items need rearranging or you need to carry them over to the next day, you’ll need to rewrite your list even more often.

Plus, recurring tasks won’t automatically pop up on your list, so you’ll need to worry about remembering to include them each time you need to work on them.

No Project Tracking

Another drawback of a paper to-do list system — there’s no way to track your progress.

Tracking your project work can be valuable for a bunch of reasons, including catching errors, gaining insight into how you work, and improving your overall efficiency.

But by keeping your to-do list on paper, you won’t be able to track your progress beyond crossing an item off your list.

No Alerts or Reminders

With your to-do list on paper, you’ll miss out on some of the best features of digital productivity tools including automated alerts and reminders.

A to-do list kept on paper is literally just a sheet of paper with your tasks — the most basic productivity tool you can have.

So if you need to remind yourself of an important meeting or approaching deadline, you’ll have to make yourself a note or remember to review your list.

Paper vs. Digital Productivity Systems

Despite the shortcomings of a paper list, many people still enjoy organizing their to-do’s the old-fashioned way. But it’s not for everyone.

A digital productivity app has options you can’t get with a regular paper to-do list. Consider how these digital vs. paper to-do list features compare.

Organizing Tools

Believe it or not, there’s more than one way to organize a paper to-do list. There are to-do list templates that help you organize your day, prioritize what’s important and even plan ahead for your long-term goals.

However, you will find even more options for organizations with a digital productivity system. You can organize your to-do’s with lists, cards, calendars, timers, alerts and more. To-do templates are available on many apps and can also be customized.

Accessibility Options

Paper to-do lists can certainly be handy. You can carry scrap paper, index cards or sticky notes anywhere, which can be a help when you’re on the go.

All the same, digital apps have many more options when it comes to accessibility. Productivity apps can sync across all your devices so that your list of to-dos is always up to date and available whenever you need it.

Reminder Alerts

When it comes to paper vs. digital productivity, reminder alerts for paper are basically limited to reminder notes stuck to the side of your computer monitor, which isn’t ideal.

Alert options are much broader for productivity apps, which can remind you of upcoming meetings, looming deadlines or even send an alert if a timed task is taking longer than expected.

Customization Options

Paper to-do lists don’t really lend themselves to customization, though it is possible. However, once you’ve set up your list format, it will take a new page or a full eraser to make changes.

Digital to-do list apps are much more customizable than what you can do on paper. You can even customize colors, fonts, list formats, alert sounds, and other app preferences with a few clicks or taps.

Scheduling Features

If you need to manage a schedule and a to-do list, it makes sense to combine them together. A calendar planner can be handy if you want to stick to paper and pen, but a digital system offers more flexibility.

With a digital system, it’s not necessary to manage your to-do’s in a calendar app. You can use a to-do app that simply syncs with your calendar automatically, providing all the scheduling help, reminder alerts and other tech features you can’t get with paper.

The choice of whether to try out a to-do list on paper or opt for an app can be tricky — with pros and cons for each, it often comes down to how you work best, along with your personal preferences.

You’ll love how simple it is to set up and use Folio by Amitree if you’re looking for a digital to-do list app.

Folio is an email add-on that lets you manage all your to-do’s automatically right from your Gmail or Outlook inbox.

It’s a great way to keep track of a busy schedule, increase your productivity and stay motivated as you work through your to-do list.

Start your free trial of Folio today.

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