Pens and Paper for Getting Things Done

I’ve finally written up my Getting Things Done approach on my other blog,, but I’ve decided to write about it here from the perspective of the paper and pens I use.

I’m still looking for a software system that works as well as pen and paper, but so far I haven’t found it. I’m not sure I ever will, so I’m sticking with what works.

File Folders

Because I carry these around and handle them a lot, the usual folders get ratty looking pretty quickly. I decided to try the Smead Heavy Duty folders, and so far they seem to be holding up better and I like the kraft color. They’re labeled with a Brother Labeler, which really makes nice labels.


I’ve tried everything from the cheapo copy paper to expensive and inexpensive lined pads to nicer paper with some cotton content. The nicer paper makes a difference – I wrote about that recently and my experience here enforces the point. In this system the paper gets handled a lot, and while regular cheap paper doesn’t fall apart, it doesn’t age very well and it sure doesn’t feel good. I also found that both Neenah Atlas bond (20lb, 25% cotton, wove finish) and Strathmore Writing (24lb, 25%, cotton, wove finish) have decent pen handling characteristics. I bought the Strathmore in 24lb thinking the extra weight would be nice, but I’m finding that is just too heavy. It feels nice and stiff, but it’s heavy and bulky when you build up a stack and even more so when you try to fold it down to pocket size. The Atlas bond was on sale at my local Xpedx for $8 a ream so I bought a bunch. It isn’t quite as nice to write on but handles well and is lighter.

I bought the Strathmore in natural white and the Atlas in bright white. The natural white stands out in a mixed stack, which is handy sometimes. The bright white shows the exact color of the ink better. I don’t think I care which I use ultimately.

For work I write a new next action list every day because I use it to catch a lot of unplanned work, such as responding to phone calls and the like. This provides a nice record when I have to write reports on what I’ve been doing. For this any paper will work ok because it’s only got to survive a day. Thinner paper is better because with 1 sheet per day the stack grows quickly.

For home the NAL gets a lot more abuse. It’s folded in half three times to end up about the size of a business card and rides in a pocket wherever I go. It gets unfolded and re-folded and reverse folded. Sometimes it might be in use for a week, sometimes less. For this kind of use cotton content is a must. The Atlas bond I’ve been using has held up well. Sometimes the list gets a rather romantic aged look to it with a variety of other notes jotted here and there.

I tried the cheapo 20lb bond copy paper we use in our laser printer, and it’s not as nice. Ink bleeds, the creases get weak, and overall it just feels yucky after only a few days. If it got truly soaking wet, or got washed, I have no doubt it would be a goner where the cotton would probably survive.


I’ve used nearly everything, but I’ve been using my Pelikan M800, Pelikan M200 and Lamy 2000 the most. Ballpoints are of course very reliable, and I’ll take one of them or a gel pen if I’m going someplace not FP friendly – like the beach. Otherwise, most of the time I’m using a nicer pen. Good paper takes the ink well and makes a fountain pen write a bit finer.

At first I worried that using a non-waterproof ink would be risky, but so far I’ve had no trouble with ink washing off despite my NAL being carried in a sweaty pocket or pulled out with wet hands. It’s been a non-issue.

Next Steps

I plan to get some 20lb Strathmore Writing when the Atlas runs out. I’m finding I actually use quite a bit of paper – I’ve already used about a ream in just a few months. Between lists, project sheets, and using it for notes it goes quickly. I’m also considering trying the Crane’s 20lb 100% cotton, but it’s pretty expensive.

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