Burner List - Manage Your Time with A Piece of Paper

Can you imagine that you can manage your time with a piece of paper, instead of a complicated app? Yes, you can.

One of these methodologies is called burner list, which is introduced in the bestseller Make Time . The author uses a single paper to manage his time, with an ultimate goal: keeping focus.

In brief, a piece of paper can be divided into four areas (see the demo below):

  1. The upper left is for the most important project;
  2. The upper right is for the second most important project;
  3. The lower left is the note area for the most important project;
  4. And the lower right is for misc items;

2 and 4 can be blank is there is no less important projects.

According to this setting, we can

  1. Only focus on up to two prioritized projects at a certain period of time (you can define the time range by yourself, for example, one day).
  2. Fold the paper vertically when we use it. Therefore, we can concentrate on the top priority or the other items at one time.

Take my day as an example

I have planned my today’s project with a burner list:

  1. The top priority is writing: an English post (this one) and a Chinese post, and I need prepare topics for the coming days;
  2. The second priority is team planning: I will set up a Basecamp account, and call my teammates;
  3. The misc tasks include surveying indie hacker website, learn online marketing and review my calendar setup.

I aim to finish all items in Writing and Team Planing by the end of today, but for now, I can focus on the left side of this burner list.


  1. With a single piece of paper, we can manage our time effectively;
  2. The ultimate goal of this methodology is keeping focus;
  3. We build a template on Notion, so you can import to use;
  4. We are building a tool based on burner list, so please stay tuned.


The “Burner List”—My simple, paper-based system for focused to-dos 

Manage Time Like Cal Newport - Plan-Actual-Revised

The Plan-Actual-Revised method (PAR) was used by the author of Deep Work Cal Newport. In Cal’s daily life, he uses a notebook to record his schedule. Simple as that, with a pen and a notebook, Cal can plan and reschedule his daily arrangements. In addition, he can revise and review them afterwards.

According to Cal, he would divide a paper into three columns:

  1. The first column is for PLANning;
  2. The second column is for ACTUAL arrangement;
  3. And the third column is for REVISion.

Each line will be set as a time block, for example, a line can be 30 or 60 minutes. In this way, we can put each activity into a one-line block or a multiple-line block according to needs.

Naturally, the duration of each activity is visualized. Therefore, we can have a vivid impression of each activity.

Why do we need Plan-Actual-Revised method?

Sometime, strictly sticking with plan can make us anxious. Instead, constant rescheduling time can make you feel having more control of time, and feel more relaxed.

As pointed out by Cal, this method

make(s) sure that I am intentional about what I do with my time, and don’t allow myself to drift along in a haze of reactive, inbox-driven busyness tempered with mindless surfing.

The similar point can be found in Jake Knapp’s comment, who is the author of Make Time:

‘The constant redesigning gave me a handle on how I was spending my time, showed me when my best writing time was, and helped me establish a routine.’

In addition, with reviewing the past reschedules, this approach can help us build a ritual by finding suitable time blocks for different types of tasks.

How do we apply Plan-Actual-Revised method?

Day before:

  1. Divide a page into there columns;
  2. Set each row as a fixed duration, e.g.: one row for one hour;
  3. Fill activities into the first column according to planned duration;

During the day:

  1. Reschedule activities if any change happens;
  2. Review the planned and actual activities;

When do we apply Plan-Actual-Revised method?

  1. If a fixed schedule doesn’t work for us, we may give this method a try;
  2. If our daily tasks involve many changes, this method may work better;


With a lined paper, we can follow Cal Newport’s approach to manage our daily tasks. This approach may release our stress, and help us build a long-term ritual.

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