How to Assess, Decide, Do with Pen, Paper and Magnets

Since I launched my ebook “Assess – Decide – Do: Natural Productivity” a little more than a month ago, many people have asked me if they need an iPhone or an iPad in order to implement the framework. While the fact that I wrote an app implementing the framework, called iAdd, is true, equally true is the fact that you don’t need the iPhone app in order to implement this system.

In fact, you can implement it with whatever storage system you want or you feel comfortable with. ADD is not only flexible enough to be adapted to your needs, but it’s also really, really simple. Much simpler than other “heavy” or “structured” productivity systems, like GTD, for instance. Let’s not be shy and say what needs to be said. 😉

ADD offers this simplicity for a variety of reasons. The fact that you don’t have a traditional “inbox” and only levels of commitment is one reason. Another reason would be the absence of a deadline as we know it. There is really no time pressure. Once you have finished a task you may build a dozen more on top of the results and start the process over. Of course, there are many other reasons that it can be called simple, but I’ll leave it up to you to find them, if you’re curious.

The Pen, Paper and Magnets Approach

In today’s post I’m going to describe one of the simplest productivity setups you can create, based on Assess – Decide – Do, using a minimum number of tools. All you’re going to need is a pen, paper and a metallic board, with colored magnets as pins. We’ll get down to the practical details later on.

Now, I’m sure many of the GTD’ers out there are familiar with the stacked inboxes: “Inbox”, “Sometime / Maybe”, etc. Well, we won’t have those in our system, but we will have 3 areas, which will correspond to our Assess, Decide and Do realms. I just wanted to make clear from the beginning that, even if the physical appearance of our system will be similar to GTD, there won’t be many similarities between the two systems.

One more thing: the following setup is intended as a starting point, but once you have mastered it in its simple form, it may be tweaked it even more to suit your individual needs. For example, you may want to make more space for each realm, or upgrade to different storage systems for each of the systems. Of course, at any time, you can always switch to a digital system, like iAdd, if you feel comfortable enough with the framework.

What You Need And The Basic Setup

The physical tools are:

  1. A metallic board of 80×40 cm. I bought mine at IKEA, it’s called SPONTAN and the base price is USD 12.99.
  2. A bunch of colored magnets. You should have an equal number of red, yellow and green magnets. Again, the IKEA board had them all.
  3. Pen and paper, preferably A6 squares. I prefer white, but you can also have colored if you keep the same color schema.

Here’s what you should have (click on the image for full size, goes for all images in this post):

Make sure you find a comfortable spot for your board. It should be close to your office but also far enough to be able to see the whole picture at any time. Hang the board up and put the magnets on it.

The leftmost part will host the red magnets, the center will host the yellow magnets, and the rightmost part of the board will have the green magnets.

Assess part – red magnets: stop and think
Assess + Decide – orange magnets: prepare
Assess + Decide + Do – green magnets: just do it!

Have the pen and paper handy. That’s it. You created your productivity setup. Really simple, right?

How To Use It

Now, how do you use this board?

Every time you think of something and need to stop thinking of it in order to move forward, write it down on a small piece of paper. Put it on the board on the leftmost part, under a red magnet. It doesn’t really need to be in the form of an action, just write it down as you see fit. Empty your mind and then get back to work.

It may be just a thought, or it may be something you wrote before in other forms. It may contain appointment data, or just ideas, or dreams. Everything you do at this stage about assessing.

Assess something

Now, after you start using the board like this, something interesting will happen: your mind will start to become clear, and at the same time the red part of the board will start to be really crowded. It’s ok. That’s the expected result. 🙂

Now, every time you feel like assessing what you wrote down, go on the board, choose a piece of paper and start working on it. Some of the papers will go directly to the recycle bin. Some of them will be rewritten as single tasks. Some of them will remain there and be brainstormed again and again until they evolve into a form you’re comfortable with. And some of them will become projects, a sequence of single actions.

Every time you feel you can’t add anything else to one of the pieces of paper, move it to the Decide section of your board (in other words, put a yellow magnet on it). As you slowly advance with processing, your Assess area should start to decompress, while the yellow area, the Decide realm, should start becoming crowded.

Decide on something

As for the Decide realm, processing should be fairly simple there. Once in Decide, you don’t edit a task anymore. You can only assign a context and a due date to it. That’s all you do in Decide. Fill in the contexts and the due dates. Then, if you really commit to performing the task, move it to Do.

In the Do section, using the green magnets, you now have tasks that you have decided to Do. You won’t assess them anymore, nor change their context or due date.

Do something

The trick is to understand that you act not only in the Do realm, crossing off tasks from a to do list, but also in the Assess (brainstorming, day dreaming, etc) and Decide (planning and signing the contract to perform the task).

Everything you add in Assess is just a thought. Everything you process in Decide is a firm contract stating that you will do that task in a specific time/space continuum: a context and a due date, that is. And everything you have in Do represents your daily list of things.

This is what I meant by levels of commitments instead of inboxes. You don’t really have an Inbox zero in ADD, unless you don’t come up with anything more to Assess, which is highly unlikely, at least as long you’re still alive.

ADD means switching back and forth between these 3 realms, and changing your focus accordingly. During the day you may feel the need to brainstorm, not to do, hence, you’ll be hanging out in Assess. Sometimes you just need to put more on your plate, so you’ll start to commit to more in Decide, by signing more contracts to future tasks. And sometimes, you just tackle pieces of paper from the Do realm, happy to finish them off.

Congratulations! You just had your first Assess – Decide – Do setup. The simplest setup ever.

Assess – Decide – Do with magnets

A Few Simple Rules

Don’t keep related information spread over two or more realms. For instance, don’t spread a project task in more than one category of Assess, Decide or Do. This will break the atomicity rule of the framework

Once a task goes past the Assess section, the body of the task can’t be modified anymore. You can only add contexts and due dates to it.

Put everything in the Assess realm first. Resist to the temptation to throw something you KNOW you will do directly to the Do realm. Pinning it first to Assess will help you integrate it into a bigger context.

Try to keep the same ink color. If you like red, keep it red, if you like green, keep it green in all realms. The color of magnets is enough to signal you the required behavior (red: stop and assess, yellow: decide, green: move on).


If you feel like you need more info, here are a few links to help you out.

And if you really feel lost, you can always use the little comment box below and tell me what you think.

6 thoughts on “How to Assess, Decide, Do with Pen, Paper and Magnets”

  1. Pingback: |
  2. Hey Dragos! Do you ever run out of ideas? LOL. Anyways, cool post here. Really practical and could help anyone from the housewife, the work-at-home retiree and even the college dudes. And yeah, kids could be introduced to this wonderful way of managing their routines.

    Just want to remind everyone though. Once they’re done with one thing, trash it. Get the small pieces of paper off to avoid confusion. And clutter.

    So there. Now where’s your next post, bud? 🙂

    Yeah. Mom once told me I sometimes have a strange way of saying “thank you”. 🙂


  3. Dragos, this is a really great exercise for organizing your workload. I can imagine my mind getting clearer by using this system, and it makes me want to read more of my copy of ADD. I should really get around to reviewing it for The Emotion Machine.

    I’m also really interested in how the iApp works, but unfortunately I don’t have an iphone. Maybe I can get some of my friends to try it out.

    Genius idea to include a phone application as part of your system!

  4. Dragos, What a helpful idea…

    I love my mac, I write and keep EVERYTHING on here…. but the problem that comes along with this obsession is that I’m rather forgetful and can’t carry my macbook all around my house to remind me of what I need to get done.

    Your board is such a wonderful solution to a few sticking points of mine 😉



Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.