Going Paperless: Getting “9 Things” Done With Penultimate and Evernote

In last week’s post, I discussed how I use Penultimate as a commonplace book that replaces the pocket notebook I used to carry around. At the end of that post, I promised that this week, I’d describe how I use Penultimate to help plan out my day.

Over the years I’ve tried lots of methodologies for getting things done each day. I’ve made lists, I’ve used organizational software, I’ve even tried GTD on a number of occasions. None of them really fit my work style. GTD didn’t work for me because there was too much overhead. To-do lists didn’t work well for me because they lacked context and would grow out of control. But a few weeks ago, I landed on a combination that–so far–has been working pretty good for me. Not too much overhead and not out of control. The idea came to me when I was a guest over at 27GoodThings. If you’ve never seen 27GoodThings, it’s worth checking out. 3 times a week, they feature a guest who provides 3 things to read, 3 things to watch and 3 things to use. (9 x 3 = 27.)

It occurred to me that part of my problem making lists was that they were never ending and not focused. I decided that instead of writing down a list of everything I had to get done, I would narrow the scope: I’d write down a list of the things I wanted to get done tomorrow. Still, that was too broad. Recalling the 27GoodThings site, I decided that if I could get 3 things done at work each day, that would be a victory. Also, since I am a freelance writer, it would be nice to get 3 freelancing tasks done each day. And finally, because I have a life outside of both work and freelancing, it would be nice to get 3 things done at home each day.

I wanted my lists to be informal. I didn’t want to have to type them out. I wanted to be able to scratch them down, as if on a piece of paper. That’s where Penultimate came in. I was already using Penultimate as a commonplace book. Why not use it to capture the 9 things I wanted to get done each day. So I created a new notebook in Penultimate and drew three lines across the page, labeling them “Work”, “Writing”, and “Home.” Under each, I scribbled out the numbers 1, 2, and 3. And then, I thought about what I wanted to get done in each of these areas the next day.

Of course, there was some overhead in that each day, I had to scribble out the “template” in Penultimate and then fill it in. That’s when I discovered that in Penultimate, you can create your own custom “paper.” I did this, and the result looks as follows:


These are my “9 things” for today. What’s nice about this is, each time I add a new page to my notebook, it is automatically added with my custom template. I’ll discuss how I created that template in a moment. First, I want to talk about my process for how I manage my 9 things.

How I manage my 9 things

Step 1. Each night, before bed, I review the page from the previous day. I try to check off completed items as I go along, but at the end of the day, if there is anything on the list that I’ve completed, I scratch it off. If there is anything I haven’t completed, I circle it. I do this only to the numbers, so that the items themselves are still legible, and I do it in red “ink.” Here is an example:


Step 2. Once I’ve completed the review of the previous day, I send that page to Evernote using the Send Page To… feature in Penultimate. In Evernote the page goes into my Diary notebook stack, and my Timeline notebook for the day on which the thing were done. This way, I have a complete record of what I wanted to get done and what I actually got done.

Step 3. I open a new, blank page in Penultimate. I fill in tomorrow’s date at the bottom and then go through each of the sections, considering what it is I want to get done tomorrow. I only look one day ahead. If there are 20 things at work that need to get done, I pick the 3 that I think are the most important and write those down. Ditto for writing and home. If I’ve circled items from the previous day–meaning I didn’t complete them–I may carry them over, but I may not. Priorities change from day-to-day. Also, I don’t always have 3 things in every category, and I’m fine with this. I just leave the line blank. On weekends, I don’t fill in anything for work, but just write WEEKEND! across that section like this:


Step 4. As I move through the day, I review the list frequently and try to cross things off as I complete them.

One thing I don’t do is change the list during the day. My priorities may change, but I want a record of what I was attempting to get done. The exception here is if I didn’t fill out a list completely. If I only filled out 2 items, I’ll feel free to add a third.

So far, this has worked out much better for me than the other systems I have tried. It is focused only on what I want to get done the next day, it narrows the scope to three areas of life that are important to me, and it limits me to 3 things in each of those areas. Now, onto how I created the template:

How I created the custom template for Penultimate

When I started out with this process, I didn’t realize that Penultimate could make use of custom “paper” templates. Apparently, you can buy some, but you can also create your own. Here is how I created the template I used for my 9 things pages:

Step 1. On my iPad, I took a screenshot of a blank page in Penultimate:


Step 2. I pulled the resulting screenshot into Skitch and cropped it so that it was just the “page” portion of the image and none of the other parts of the screen:


Step 3: In the cropped image, I used Skitch to added the text and lines that I wanted on my “page” template:


Step 4: From inside Skitch, save my “9 Things” template to my camera roll. This ensures that the image is available to other applications.

Step 5: I opened Penultimate to the notebook I wanted to use. In this case it was my “9 Things” notebook. I clicked on the Paper icon (see below) and then clicked on the + sign to add a new custom paper:


Step 6. I selected the image from my camera roll that I saved in Step 4 above:


Step 7. The new “paper” template will appear under the “My Paper” option in the paper menu. All I had to do was click “My Paper” and then select the “paper” that I added and a blank page with my template was added to the notebook:


Penultimate uses the last paper template you used for each new page added. Since this is the only one I use in this notebook, whenever I add a page, it always has my template. And since the template is part of the “paper”, erasing stuff you write on the page does not erase the template underneath. You can use a template similar to what I did here, or you can create your own.

For anyone who would like to add my template to Penultimate, the background image can be downloaded here:

  • [download id=”4″]

One reasonable question to come out of all of this is: why use Penultimate? Why not just make these lists in a note in Evernote and use the checkbox feature? That is a perfectly valid question and I think the answer comes down to personal taste. When I am making these lists, I think them through better when I write them out long-hand. Penultimate gives me the ability to do that, and the ability to save my lists in Evernote for future reference. This method feels more natural to me than typing the lists into a note in Evernote and working off the note. But again, this is personal preference.

And besides, even if you don’t like making your to-do lists in this manner, I think there is still value in seeing just how you can create custom paper templates in Penultimate, and the possible application of such templates.

So there you have it. I like this approach to managing what I need to get done. It is, so far, working better for me than any of my previous efforts in this regard. And it is very, very simple. In next week’s post, I am going to attempt a more detailed answer at one of the most frequently-asked questions I get about going paperless: How do you organize your notes? Stay tuned…

And as always, this post, and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.


  1. These posts never fail to make me think about my paperless journey, and what I can do to improve it.

    I’ve been struggling with todo lists for a while now, and how to manage them. I still haven’t come up with something I’m happy with. I might give this (or an adapted version) a try and see if it works for me.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Great post Jamie. I started my Paperless challenge this week. I tested out 2 apps, one Penultimate. But have settled on Noteshelf as I find the writing on it to be more natural, plus it as a zoom feature. Same way if working apart from that.

  3. Jamie, I’m still trying to find a decent stylus to use with my iPad, if I felt comfortable with that, I’d try this in a heartbeat. Any suggestions?
    Thanks for a great post, really helpful with how to customize Penultimate pages.

    1. Check this one out – – it looks and feels like a pen + it doubles as an actual pen for those times you still need to put pen to paper. I’ve tried many and this is the most natural and does not look like you are writing with a crayon.


      1. I have the Adonit Jot Touch. It is fantastic and so easy to be very accurate, and it manages pressure sensitivity. However, and this is a huge however, it has scratched my display. The company are pulling the ‘we say you should use a screen protector’ but in have never had to have one on any other ipad with a lot of different styluses.

        The Bamboo is good, but there are a lot of reviews suggesting that the tips aren’t very durable. Only been using mine for a week so we’ll see

    2. Try Dagi stylus. I find it the most accurate as it is transparent at the tip and you can see what you’re writing. To add to that it doesn’t feel like you’re writing with an eraser.

      That’s their official website but you can buy it off ebay. Do make sure however that you get the latest design that uses a spring at the tip for a more natural wrting feel. I have the first gen of this stylus and that was bad in the sense that you had to write at a constant angle.

      The new design I feel is perfect.

  4. Great post! I do have a question though, do you use a stylus pen or just your fingers when writing in penultimate? If a stylus, which one? I’m still deciding between stylus (I’d wish there were a store where I could just try them).


  5. great post and a great idea!

    On their blog, Cocoa Box (originators of Penultimate) said this in their May 2, 2011 post:

    (Hint: when building your own templates, try 718×865 as the image resolution.)

    Do you or anyone know whether these are the same image specs in later versions?

    Once again, great idea! Keep ’em coming!

    1. Douglas, clever looking for those specs Cocoa Box site for the specs. That never occurred to me. I don’t know if they are the same. Which is why I simply captured the screenshot and cropped it. That worked well enough for me.

  6. So I started the paperless challenge. I ordered a scanner because Doxie One wasn’t available in my city. Now you are talking an Ipad only app – what would you use with an Ipod since I don’t think I need an iPad?

    1. You could create a template. I have a daily journal notebook and each day is a note. I used the check boxes for what needs done each day. I set it up the night before then I have a clear todo list as soon as I get up.

  7. I have been struggling with an organizational system that will work for my somewhat insane life: adjunct professor, homeschooler, human. GTD seems like it should work, but I just can’t get it. I wanted a template for what does work for me, and I think you just showed me how to make it happen. Woohoo!!!

    1. Beth, me too except for the Homeschooling part. If you haven’t yet I strongly recommend getting your school stuff built into Evernote notebooks. Having all the attachments, files, forms, and checklists for your students available everywhere and with the ability to quickly email is a lifesaver.
      I just finished A Year of Living Dangerously, do you have other homeschooling book suggestions?

  8. Hi,
    great idea to use Penultimate.
    but i’ve got a question. You wrote ” In Evernote the page goes into my Diary notebook stack, and my Timeline notebook for the day on which the thing were done. ”
    How do you force evernote to save the penultimate-notes into a special evernote-notebook?

    Please help me to understand this. Thanks

    1. Joerg,

      There are two ways to do this. Here is the method I use:

      1. In Penultimate, click on the Settings icon.
      2. In settings, click Evernote…
      3. On the Evernote settings, click Send To…
      4. In the Send To Notebook options, select the Notebook you want your notes to go to by default.

      I set it to my Timeline notebook.

      The alternative is to send the pages via email to your Evernote account. In the subject line, include @notebook name to send the note to a specific notebook. I like the first option because it is fewer steps, after the initial setup.

  9. Wow, I think this is an excellent post!

    I have bought a Bamboo Stylus before Christmas and I love using it on the iPad – especially with great apps like Penultimate. Combined with the fact that my todo list is always longer than any human can handle, I will give this approach a serious try.

    My variation: I will use “Work” and “Home” too and swap the third category depending on mid-term goals/projects e.g. going completely “Paperless” or improving “Health & Fitness” or finally get a “Blog” going…

    Looking forward to more great paperless and Penultimate posts.

  10. Jamie – I have a really stupid question that I’m embarrassed to put in the comments, here, but . . . I love your template and have clicked on the link. It opens in Safari as a .png file, but I can’t figure out how to get it into my photos so I can open it in/add it to Penultimate. What am I missing? (I’ve tried it on my iPad, etc.)



    1. Laura,

      If you read the post in Safari on the iPad and click on the link to the “9 Things Template” then select “Open” you see nothing but the picture and then tap slightly longer on the picture and select “Save Image” which will save it to the Camera Roll.

      Rest as described in the post.

  11. Jamie,

    I think your idea of limiting yourself to 3 activities in each area is brilliant! I think this may be the simplification that I have needed. Thanks so much!


  12. Jamie, a great idea. Like any project they way to making it look easy is small chunks. I’ll probably still keep a “to do” but make it a bucket list rather than the everyday tasks list.


  13. Interesting, but seems like both a stretch to use Penultimate with Evernote and a number of extra steps. Why not just call out a Notebook called “To Dos” and use the Checklist capability – call out your three basic levels and put your three activities each indented underneath?

    In this case if you want to maintain by date, put the date on top (instead of bottom) and older lists move to the bottom.

    1. Roger, agreed, which why I said, toward the end of the post, that this was really personal preference:

      One reasonable question to come out of all of this is: why use Penultimate? Why not just make these lists in a note in Evernote and use the checkbox feature? That is a perfectly valid question and I think the answer comes down to personal taste. When I am making these lists, I think them through better when I write them out long-hand. Penultimate gives me the ability to do that, and the ability to save my lists in Evernote for future reference. This method feels more natural to me than typing the lists into a note in Evernote and working off the note. But again, this is personal preference.

      1. Thanks for the response – sorry I missed your comments toward the end. I guess I started formulating my response as I was reading and skipped right past that.

        I do appreciate your paperless ideas – it is good to challenge our current frame of reference and find new applications.

  14. Great idea! I’m a list writer, but have the same problem where they grow out of control, I get overwhelmed and then I just give up. I’m going to try the whole 3 x 3 idea. Sounds like it might keep me more focused.

  15. Thank you for the reply. While researching the stylus I noted the replacement nibs come in soft and firm. Unfortunately there does not appear to be a combo pack. I am enjoying your posts.

  16. Jamie, thanks for the tips. I am trying to find ways to make my life a little more organised. I currently use Omnifocus for my todos and find it helpful to keep track of the large number of todos and projects that I have running. (60 todos in the schedule at the moment, albeit the majority are overdue!)

    Your 3 x 3 seems to work well but how do you keep track of the longer list of items that get transferred into the 3 x 3?



  17. Jamie,

    Giving it a try starting today. I had never sent my penultimate notes to Evernote. Do you find that once you have sent it to Evernote, you can delete the notebooks in Penultimate? I am trying to avoid having things in too many places.


  18. Jamie, I love the focus your list gives to the day. How do you deal with things that come up during the day? Do you keep a master list of things that need to be done and choose from it daily for your 9 things?

    1. Sabrina, I should probably do a second post focusing on the process rather than the technology. I’ve had a lot of questions about it. 🙂 It’s still pretty new for me, I’ve been doing it for 3 weeks or so. In addition to the daily “9 things” list in Penultimate, I use two other tools for managing stuff I have to do: (1) Boomerang for Gmail. This is a lifesaver and lets me schedule stuff or follow up on stuff while still clearing out my inbox. (2) Asana, which is a simple, online project management tool. I use this for those things that “come up during the day.” I’ll add them to Asana and review my projects in Asana at the end of the day when I am creating my “9 things” list.

  19. Like your posts and blogs (don’t know where you find the time), but I noticed you left “Hobby” out of the template. Intentionally?

    1. Ed, actually, it looks like I put the older version of my template up. If you look at the screenshots on the post, the last section of the template reads, “Home/Health/Hobby.” I changed that after about 2 days of doing this, adding “Hobby” to the end, but it looks like I put up the older template for download. You can easily tack on “Hobby” at the end by editing the image in Skitch.

      1. Jamie, Of course I tried that but I could not edit a field, only add a new field in Stitch. I am not that familiar with Stitch and Penultimate, so tell me how to do that.

        1. Jamie, Of course I tried that but I could not edit a field, only add a new field in Stitch. I am not that familiar with Stitch and Penultimate, so tell me how to do that.

  20. One negative I have found (unless I am missing something) is that Penultimate is not available on the iPhone, and computer for that matter. That is a big positive with Evernote – it is available on and synchs across all your devices. I like having todo lists and the like available on my iPhone and iPad.

    1. John, yeah, I can see that being a negative. On the other hand, the way I typically use it is the way I used the Moleskine notebook I used to carry around, so it’s availability on just the iPad works okay for me.

  21. Jamie, I created a template of my daily, weekly, and monthly tasks in MS-Word and used Skitch to crop and put in the camera roll.

    When I add it into Penultimate it changed the text from black to a very light green, almost like a watermark.

    How do I make it black?

    1. Jim, my template “faded” somewhat as well, kind of like a watermark as you describe. For me, it was still functional so I went with it. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to prevent that coloring change.

  22. Jamie, I know you’re using Penultimate and they’ve just given it even better integration with Evernote. But you should give Noteshelf a go. It not only has a beettermfeel to the writing, giving you the ability to write better, it has a zoom feature that gives you a zoomed portion at the bottom of the screen, allowing really neat and small writing. It also has all the normal functionality ti expert to evernote etc. I’m going to contact Evernote to suggest putting this function in Penultimate. give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.

  23. Gordon, I use Noteshelf as well. I agree that in many ways its superior to Penultimate. My writing, using the zoom feature, is much, much neater than on Penultimate.

    I emailed the makers of Noteshelf and they replied that they are working on having your notes synch automatically with Evernote. Having to upload my notes manually to Evernote is the one thing I don’t like about Noteshelf.

  24. Excellent post, now this I can use! and I’m also glad someone else’s handwriting looks like mine in penultimate.

  25. I’ve been following your paperless blog for about a year (since I’ve heard of it), and I’ve committed to following in your steps and creating a paperless lifestyle for myself. So, thanks for that.

    But this post, dude, is absolutely incredible. What a great way to use Penultimate – an app I was struggling to integrate into my system. As much as I love my moleskine, I hate carrying the extra little book around in my pocket.

    So this is pretty damn awesome. Thanks!

  26. Hello,

    Have you seen this website? http://www.ipadpapers.com
    There you can upload your template, and also download others. Here is a list of different todo templates, using different methodologies:

    I am also looking for the “ultimate” todolist. Using Penultimate has helped me very much, and now I am just browsing through methodologies trying to find the best one.

    Actually I have come to use a Penultimate notebook, and no matter which of the templates I use, the important thing _for me_ is to erase a task when it is done. That way I never have to ponder on what I have done, and can focus on what I should DO instead. Still this list 9 things is good. But instead of saving it every night I would just erase the things I’ve done and add new things to the same list…

    Unfortunately my lists are never “only” 9 things, so therefore I have a whole notebook filled with Todos. With the wonderful cut and paste tools of Penultimate it is easy to move things around and always have an up-to-date todo list 🙂

    Thanks for your post, and hope you will find some other interesting templates on the site above!



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