Getting Things Done with a Moleskine Cahier

by Mike Shea on 24 May 2007

David Allen's productivity system, Getting Things Done, can be daunting at first. When one hears that the initial collection of a disorganized system can take days, many people stop right there and go back to their unproductive disorganized habits of old. Some have so little control over their daily activities at any point that even thinking about rebuilding their system takes too much time.

There are discussions within the circles of GTD, even discussed by David Allen in his 43 Folders interview, about whether one can take parts of the GTD system and implement them without having to go through the pain of the full GTD process. While I went through the full process myself, I believe that some basic principals of GTD can fit into any system and begin to steer one towards a more organized and trustworthy system.

Today I will describe a simple GTD system built around a simple Moleskine Cahier pocket notebook and some 3x5 index cards. Rather than build an entire system, the proper use of simple tools can help steer one towards a full GTD implementation. Much of this is based on Merlin Mann's Hipster PDA but with the Cahier, we have a more stable inbox and projects list.

Step 1, Get a Moleskine Cahier pocket notebook

These small softback notebooks sell three to a pack for under ten bucks. They have 64 pages each with the last 16 sheets removable. There's also a small but mostly worthless back pocket.

This Cahier notebook will be your primary GTD tool. It serves two purposes: a ubiquitous capture device or "inbox", and contains your list of projects.

Step 2, Separate projects from the inbox

Using a small tab or a piece of a sticky note, create a tab on the Cahier that separates the last sixteen pages from the rest of the notebook. These sixteen pages will be the location of your projects lists. All of the pages ahead of it are the inbox.

Step 3, Begin writing down projects

For every multi-step project you have, write it down in your new projects list. Everything from "Johnson Financial Report" to "Maintain My Car" can go on this list. Take the last two or three pages in the Cahier for the all-important "Someday Maybe" list. This list contains anything you have thought about but have no direct plan to do currently.

If you are able to, you may consider separating projects out by "Work" and "Home" or any other major set of locations. Don't get crazy with the labels. Don't have more than three or four. The important thing is to capture EVERY project whether it is for home or work or wherever.

Instead of performing the full top to bottom brain dump of projects, in this lightweight GTD implementation you write projects as they come to you. It may take you a few weeks to capture every project you have but every time a new project shows up or an old one gets dug out of the stacks of paper on your desk or in the caverns of your mind, you pull out your Cahier and add it to your projects list.

Step 4, Use 3x5 cards for Next Action lists

The Cahier itself is excellent for synchronous capture of new information but it is lousy for action lists. Action lists are very dynamic, often cluttered, and are somewhat disposable. If you try to keep Next Actions on bound paper, you will quickly fill up a notebook with hundreds of checked off items. 3x5 cards work very well as small disposable action lists. These contextual lists are built around each location. Some examples include: @home, @car, @work, @grocery store, @phone, @email.

Take a small binder clip and clip the cards to the front or back cover of the Cahier. This is a basic Hipster PDA modification but the Cahier adds a bit more stability to something that might be a little too chaotic if done solely with 3x5 cards. The Cahier makes a much better inbox and a more permanent place for projects lists than 3x5 cards do.

Step 5, Daily Use of your Cahier GTD System

Always keep your Cahier notebook close at hand. As new items come pouring in, whether from email, phone, conversations, or even ideas straight out of the cobwebs in your head, write them down in the Cahier. Every few hours, sit down and process all of the items you wrote down, turning them into projects, next actions, reference information, calendar activities, or Someday Maybe items. Put a check next to every line that has been processed so you know what you last covered.

Any new project gets added to the projects list in the back of the Cahier. Any next action item gets added to your proper contextual Next Action card labeled with the location where you can perform that action. Any item you may want to do someday, want to keep track of, but don't have any next actions for can go on your Someday Maybe list.

Tips for Success

There are a few tips one should consider when switching to this lightweight GTD system:

  1. Always keep your notebook at hand. You never know when something will hit you and you should get used to recording every thing that does. Don't trust yourself to keep items in your head, capture them immediately and process them regularly.

  2. Keep your inbox, projects, and next actions separate. Don't try to keep to-do items in the same location as your unprocessed inbox items.

  3. Record projects in your projects list as they arrive. As you find new projects or uncover old ones, record them in the back of the notebook. It may take a while before you have them all but you soon will and a short time later you'll watch that list start to get smaller and smaller as you complete things you never thought you'd complete or eliminate items you realize are no longer important.

  4. Use 3x5 Next Action lists labeled by physical location to keep track of your next immediate actions. This gives you a powerful tool to focus on the items you are able to do at the moment and ignore the items you cannot do at the moment. Once this has developed into a system you fully trust, you will no longer worry about that one last item you forgot to cover last time you were at the office.

Getting Things Done is a powerful but initially daunting productivity system. This lightweight system simplifies the tools required to begin wrangling together all of those loose ends that make up the complexity of our lives. With a trusted system we can spend less brain processing power on wasted thought and focus it on the creative decision making processes for which it is best designed.