Paula’s Method (or How I Was Rescued from Post-It Note Hell)

I used to live in post-it note hell. Some of you still live there…I know because I’ve been in your offices and we can always tell our own kind!  Back then, most mornings consisted of me scrambling between answering phone calls and jumping to immediately respond to any incoming emails while taking down notes on little multicolored squares of paper that I would place in prominent parts of my office – above the computer monitor, below the computer monitor, next to the phone, on the desk next to where I kept my notepad, sometimes stuck desk drawers, sometimes on file folders….LITTLE PINK AND YELLOW DAY GLOW SQUARES EVERYWHERE I COULD STICK THEM.

It was during one of my typical mornings, while flipping through the 20-something notes stuck in various places around my workspace that my then colleague and now friend Paula decided to save me from post-it note hell. “Chris,” she said in that motherly tone that I imagine one can only achieve by being an actual real life mom, “you need to organize your to-do list.” This was not the first time she taught me something, it was definitely not the last, but it’s one of the best things she ever showed me.  I now know this process as the “Paula Method”.

I was dismissive at first, “I have a bunch of task lists already!” I told her. I showed her the one I had on my computer in Outlook, and the one that I had in Evernote on my phone, and the random scribbling on scraps of paper around the office and on the fronts of file folders.  I had lists of short-term goals, lists of long-term goals, stuff that needed to get done that day and stuff that I would like to get done at some point.  And the post-it notes…she couldn’t deny the post-it notes…they were everywhere!


Paula showed me that I was creating more clutter and more confusion by doing things the way I did them.  I didn’t really believe her but I was desperate to get my tasks under control so I decided to ignore my gut and actually hear her out.

First thing she did was take away all my post-it notes!   She got me a notebook…nothing fancy just a basic spiral notebook.  She liked the ones with the space for the date in the upper right corner of each page so that’s what she got me.  And here’s the process she shared with me:

“Every day, you start the day with your list. Make the list of all the things that you need to be working on.  This will include things that you will get done that day, others that you need to get done that week, and some that will take a month or longer to get done – but it serves the main purpose of putting all of your tasks in one place that you will look daily.

Put your tasks on the list line by line and as you complete a task, cross it out and make any notes related to the task so you know where you ended things and, if applicable, what your next follow-up action will be.

Take the tasks that you did not complete that day and carry them over to the next day. The next morning, start all over writing the list of pending tasks.  Work through what you can that day, rewrite the next day, work, repeat.”

So there were a few things about this that scared me right away. First off, it sounded simple and it sounded like other advice that I’d heard in the past about prioritizing.  “Nothing is this simple,” I thought as I pulled all the post-it notes off the walls and windows, organizing them into a sticky pile.  I also worried about putting all of my tasks in one place.  Somewhere along the way I had convinced myself that I work better with multiple lists.  As I think back on this now, I must have decided that at a time when I had way less on my plate – because it definitely did not make sense for me to keep track of multiple lists that all have the same end goal: GET THESE THINGS DONE.

The other thing Paula told me was to keep the notebooks. And I do.  I have them on the shelf where I imagine I would have kept my encyclopedia set if those were still a thing.  But since they aren’t, I have a good amount of space where I can keep the notebooks now.  As I use them, I mark the fronts with the start and end date.  I usually get 3-5 months from each notebook just depending on how many other notes I make each day.

Things to Do.

Every single morning, I get a cup of coffee and either at the café before work or first thing at my desk when I arrive, I take the time to create my list for the day. The list goes on the right side page in the notebook every day.  The left side page I leave blank and use for any notes I take on anything throughout the day.  If it takes more than a page for any daily notes, then I flip the page and keep writing.  When it’s a new day and time for a new list, I flip to a fresh set of pages and start again with the day on the right side page.  The next morning, I look at the prior day’s notes and list.  Then I carry over anything that I did not complete.  I also add any new tasks.  I know what new tasks to add because I make notes to add them.  In the morning when I am moving the prior day’s undone tasks over, I am also reviewing the prior day’s notes for any new tasks that I need to add.

It helps to look at your list every morning. It also helps to write your list down again every morning…it’s a way of reaffirming those goals and facing those undone tasks each day.  There is a small but satisfying sense of accomplishment in getting things knocked off the list.  It’s a small but meaningful means of staying focused to simply look at the size of your list and get a feel for where you should be focusing your efforts.

I can’t count how many times I have referred back to a specific date for notes from a meeting with a client or from a conference call only to find them easily located because I have this single book with all of the information in one place.

Paula gave me my moment of clarity. This guy is focused on other things.

Paula gave me my moment of clarity. This guy is realizing new things too!

So did I stop using Evernote or Outlook?? NO! I use them both but I don’t double any work and I find ways to use them that compliment my daily list, not conflict with it.  Evernote is essentially my “catch all” for any links that I want to check out later and any information or research that I’m compiling.  The Outlook tasks function is now really only something I use for actual follow-ups related to email communications in Outlook.  So if it’s outside of Outlook I’m doing it in my notebook task list but as soon as the work starts happening in Outlook, I tend to keep it there and use the Outlook task system to manage it to completion.

And what became of my post-it notes you ask?  They are alive and well.  The good people at 3M needn’t worry!  I still find plenty of uses for those handy little slips of semi-sticky paper — but when it comes to keeping organized and staying on track, I still prefer to stick with the “Paula Method”….THANKS AGAIN PAULA!!!


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