Getting Things Done: How I Take Notes, My Nerdy Highlighter System

Lots of folks have emailed me to ask me how I get everything done and what systems I have in place to keep myself motivated, on track, and organized. I love watching how other people work and learning what they do to stay organized–so I thought I’d share a behind-the-scenes peek into some of my systems. Here’s what I do when I start my day.

I have a lot of various systems and half-systems that work perfectly for me; a combination of analog and digital tools and, of course, several notebooks. I almost always start the day with a fresh list (on a real piece of paper) because it’s a way to clear my mind and it’s the habit that gets me into the day. During highly productive consecutive days where I’m focused on just a few things (a 3-day stretch of writing, or a week focused on creating a book), I’ll often use the same list for the whole week.

I’m well versed in David Allen’s Getting Things Done and the Action Method by Scott Belsky, and Stephen Covey’s urgent/important matrix, and I implement a bit of each across various projects (and type of work) that I’m involved in.

Here’s a quick behind-the-scenes look at how I take notes–using a fairly simple analog notebook (a moleskine) and 2-color highlighter system.

Making a list, the old fashioned way:

In the morning, after I wake up and have coffee (and do some reading or stretching), I open a fresh page in my moleskine. Based loosely in categories (such as errands, writer’s workshop, blog posts, guest posts, bills, etc), I’ll list out the things on my mind that I want to work on:


Step 2: Adding a yellow highlighter (prioritizing).

The next step is pretty simple, but it keeps me focused. I take out my yellow highlighter and look back through the list and highlight the things that are the most important (or urgent) for me. Maybe I’ve got a big deadline, maybe I just got off a plane and I really, really want to clean up and settle back into my home, or maybe I’ve been itching to read a few books that I haven’t made time for lately. Whatever it is that’s the most important, I highlight. It’s a variation on writing a to-do list with only the three most important items, but it’s useful for me to add this level of clarity.

Highliter system--3-spread

Step 3: Highlight what you have done or accomplished in blue (reflection + tracking).

As I work through my ideas, projects, and tasks, I highlight what I did do in blue throughout the day. If something pulls me out or off of this list unexpectedly (an hour long call with my mom, an unexpected visit from the plumber, needing to fix my website if it goes down), I try to make sure to add this on and write it down to account for what I’ve spent time on.

At the end of the day, I can quickly see whether or not I was able to stay focused on the things I felt were most important. A successful day is one in which I can cross off all of those yellow highlights–that’s a slam-dunk day.

I rarely get everything crossed off. (That’s pretty normal).

Some days I’ve spent the entire day working and it feels like I’m making no progress on my goals. When I end the day, I like to recap quickly by looking at my notes and remembering what I did do (or noting if I’ve had a completely off or strange day), and then assess whether or not I made progress on the big things I’ve been wanting to work on.

Throughout the week, this system also serves as useful feedback. If I’ve had an item on the list for five or six days in a row and I’m still not making progress on it, I know that I need to adjust my strategy and spend more time focused on that piece. Maybe something’s holding me back (mentally, emotionally, logistically, structurally), or maybe I need to allocate more time (and energy) to the project than I anticipate.

Other systems I love + making sure it’s not all about “productivity.”

I love lots of systems–from David Allen’s Getting Things Done to Scott Belsky’s Action Method. Yesterday I saw Danielle LaPorte’s Entrepreneurial Time Management post which made me very excited (it’s similar to what I do, but mine isn’t defined as clearly as this–so this makes me want to up my game), and Amber Rae’s post in Fast Company about scheduling your days around your peak energy is GREAT. As always, the insanely organized Jenny Blake has an entire toolkit that I love drooling over and perusing to discover new things.

Lately I’ve been adding a short box to the upper-right corner of my page, asking myself (based on Danielle LaPorte’s Desire Map program) how I want to feel throughout the day. I’ll jot down the notes, something like: “Less stressed out, excited, productive, peaceful.” Writing them down and having them there to look at helps me remember what the point of it all is–not to crank through yet another list, but rather, to work on things (and in ways) that make me feel the way I want to feel.

But what else goes in this notebook?

Ahhh, great question. It’s a catch-all notebook that I use to take notes during meetings, calls, reflection periods, and on books that I am reading (or want to write). I use up 5-15 pages a day between notes and lists, and each notebook can last me for a month or several months, depending on how much writing and sketching I’m doing.

I have a two-color pen system that I (loosely) follow. Black are my ramblings, personal notes and lists; blue are my reading notes or specific program notes. If I’m reading a book and jotting down notes, out comes the blue pen. If I’m on a tele-call or taking a class; again with the blue pen. That way, I go back and can flip through and find my notes fairly easily.

A final note on systems and organization:

Of course, there’s a lot more than just a list and a highlighter–I use calendars, visioning days, big maps, plans, online notes, Evernote, Google Docs, and many other tools. More on that later. For now:

“The only system you need is the system that works” – tweet!

The ultimate metric for me, however, is whether or not I’m getting what I want. “The only system you need is the system that works” is one of my key phrases for evaluating–you don’t need to adopt any new systems or strategies unless you want to make a specific change. You don’t need to fix what’s not broken! If you’re not saving any money and want to save more, change the system (the one you’re using isn’t working). If you like the outcome you’re getting, however, you don’t necessarily need to switch things up, unless you’re up for an experiment.

The only system you need–is the one that works for you.

What other tips and tricks would you like to know about? I’m happy to share tons of my how-to’s and systems, and I hope to share a lot more of these in the near future. What works for you? What do you want to know more about?


7 Responses to Getting Things Done: How I Take Notes, My Nerdy Highlighter System

  1. Love this post. Getting Things Done was the catalyst for me to create my own systems back in the day. I also use a mix of digital and analog tools.

    Lately though, because I spend so much of my time in the digital space, I’ve been craving more paper. More reading real books rather than blog posts and articles online. More writing lists on paper and in notebooks rather than using just my digital systems. There is something so magical about putting pen to paper.

    Thank you for opening the kimono for us. Great tips.

    • Sarah says:

      Hey pretty lady! Fancy seeing you on the interwebs! I’ve missed your face and all of the goodness back in San Francisco.

      I sometimes just need to write it all out on pen and paper. It’s slower, simpler, easier (and for some reason much more satisfying). I just started a new wall in my apartment with a set of 4 months of calendars pinned up, and I have NEVER been this good about creating editorial calendars–until now. I just can’t think in the tiny window box that is Google Calendars. (Plus, I get distracted). There’s just something about analog…

      Hope you’re doing well, Sandra!!

  2. Melissa says:

    Hi Sarah, Great post and perfect timing. I’m sorely in need of an update! I also read Danielle’s post yesterday and it really resonated with me.

    Lately I’ve been using Workflowy as a big To Do list which is pretty useful, but i agree with Sandra’s comment – nothing beats pen and paper – something about writing it down and crossing it off (or highlighting) which is immensely satisfying!!

    Love your work!

  3. Katherine says:

    Great post Sarah. I read Get Your Act together over the summer and have been incorporating a modified version of their system to get housework under control. Has definitely helped to create a schedule/to-do list and to spread it out over time instead thinking it all has to be done NOW. Thanks for the links to other tools to check out.

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks, Katherine! Yes–my biggest mistake (and the one that causes a lot of anxiety) is thinking that everything has to happen right NOW. Putting things on the calendar and realizing that I can plan out a couple of days is really helpful.

  4. Katie says:

    Such great timing, Sarah! I’m in the midst of figuring out how to structure my week. I keep my tasks in Google Tasks so I can update from my phone while I’m out and about. I also use pen and paper for major tasks (and prefer it like everyone else.) I’m going to try out your highlighter method. Great links too!