How to Create a Cornell Dashboard: Using a Paper Planner to become more Productive when using your Digital Productivity Software

Sorry if Google isn’t helping you: the Cornell Dashboard is a term I invented based on the Cornell Note Taking Method.

The original intent of the method was to summarize and review your notes. In short, it was a way of making a notebook become an even smaller notebook for the sake of annotating and brainstorming thoughts and ideas related to the subject you just wrote.

With the popularity of Bullet Journals, suddenly people aren’t so shy in conserving pages of paper for their annotations and notes.

Digital imitates Analog, Analog imitates Digital

With the rise of information capturing, note taking became a product of not just taking notes but figuring out how to search and archive them.

Bullet journals and other paper planners went the direction of creating a page specifically to jot down which page had which section.

Web apps went the way of searches then tagging and then later on following the same Table of Content feature of a normal paper book allowed for things like wiki-links, outboxes and clip conversions.

Either way both methods are heading back to the stone age of writing which is modular.

For more on this, check out this video:

The quick version to describe modular apps is to compare it to the bamboos and the stone tablets that littered the early era of recording notes.

You basically trade an advanced specialized form of notebook for a primitive form – only in this case the primitive form can be stored, combined and re-modded into a different lay-out as if they were the equivalent of drawing grids and borders in a paper notebook.

Either way:

The greater good for both paper and web apps: More customized views


The greater bad for both paper and planners: More ways to mess up organization such as dragging a header that doesn’t contain the notes beneath or in the case with a bullet journal – additional lag from picking colors and using rulers.


The weakness of both methods is in primarily thinking and memorizing templates.

Yes, templates are supplied by the app (or in the case of BuJo supplied by a youtube video/planner vendor) but even in its most free form version which is to explore and create your templates – you are still forced to memorize the templates you are using.

How do you fix this?

The trick is to make template thinking complementary rather than associative especially if the two result into a redundant form of writing things down twice or more.

This is easier said than done.

This act of thinking in templates and mix and matching user interfaces once led a reddit user to accuse me of being “either the least or most productive user ever” based on this post.

See, the whole thing can encompass the entirety of how to form your own productivity system.

Each element can mean adding another unnecessary layer to your note taking system if you do it wrong. (and you will do it wrong for the first few months)

This is what the deleted user means when they say:

How high is the productivity gain tho? Not to say that is a bad thing, but purely productivity-wise, I can’t imagine such a large overhead in logging, checking and using tool-related technology to pay off compared to using say, pen and paper for todo-lists and a calendar.

This is where the spirit of the Cornell Method of Note Taking rears in.

Step-by-step wise there is no one linear way to do this but fundamentally it’s about creating homunculi.

is a representation of a small human being. Popularized in sixteenth-century alchemy and nineteenth-century fiction, it has historically referred to the creation of a miniature, fully formed human.

What this means is that you want to create “smaller” yet “linked to each other” concepts that are good enough to serve as your “host” despite being made of different parts.

The simple example:

Take Cynthia Lowman’s Bullet Journal:

Every one of the features can be replicated by a web service or a web app.

Aside from the Social Sharing Info section in which she says:

This gets its own category, since it’s not a list or anything, just information I refer to frequently. I am so far from perfect from maintaining my “platform” well, but I have this to help me when I pay attention to these things. I got the info from various websites and put it in one place.

So…process of elimination – apply everything in her system to digital except this one because it is unavailable thus far:


Like most things in life though, things are usually convoluted.

For one, there’s the obvious main factor: human preference.

Who gets to say whether someone will be more productive using a paper planner/calendar versus a digital one?

Going down the rabbit hole

This is why productivity tip writers often make the mistake of saying “no system is for everyone”.

It’s not that they are wrong. It’s that they are saying it with the wrong justification behind it.

Far too often they are saying it, not because they’ve concluded it as correct, but because they’ve settled on the defeatist thought that one shouldn’t stretch the hypothesis of innovating productivity and self-improvement.

Well, that’s no longer the case nowadays.

Airtable, Workflowy, have proven that digital is not only different from paper planners but BuJo designers like Cynthia Lowman has shown that there are graphs and designs that can be modules for a page along other information that aren’t available in the current modular apps of the year 2018.‘s 2.0 version is the biggest destroyer to my productivity books’ concept if there ever was one but much like Google Tasks eventually replaced Moo.Do and Dynalist improved on Workflowy at the price of what some might say as killing one of it’s main features which is minimalism…things will continue to change.

Already for planners there are RocketBooks and it’s not like there aren’t new planners being sold everyday that contain different tweaks.

Progress goes on is a rhetorical statement but the question is: What happens when progress hasn’t arrived yet and you want to experience something close to it?

The Elements of a Cornell Dashboard

First off: think small

Think small but think whole.

A dashboard is a dashboard so design-wise it’s not that hard to add tables and shapes and mind maps – etc. etc. etc.

That I leave to you.

Getting down to the basics

1st: You always want a blank page to experiment on. Two side by side pages are even better.

Ideally you should have four pages.

2nd: Ignoring those pages for now, have you got your basics down?

If you are a calendar user – do you have a calendar?

If you are a spiraldex user – do you have a spiraldex?

If you are using an Alastair Future Log – do you have an Alastair Future Log?

As with any templates, the key is to know your modules and the terms and concepts behind them.

Finally: Start with an Identity.

Da Vinci had his all-work no play notebook, Franklin had his virtues – What is yours?

Example of my productivity guide’s identity:

The Homonculi Planner

My eyes:




Cause it allows me to create different views based on the categories I create.

My ears:




Cause it is associated with the act of using my phone which is anchored or biased towards being unlocked when I have to actually call someone.

My nose




Cause my system can’t breathe without it. I need its corkboard, I need to quickly shuffle to a section, I can quickly solostorm using its mind map feature. Just because it’s for screen writing doesn’t mean I can’t use it as my free Read Later Journal.

My mouth:




Cause I can quickly create a master page of my tasks via using ctrl+shift+I and then sending an entry from one section to a master section as if it were swallowing my tasks and organizing it for me.

My feet:




Cause it is my preferred time logger since it is neither countdown timer nor stopwatch nor a time estimating calendar so I know how long it took me to my goal.

The 4 Page Experimental Paper Dashboard of my Digital Apps

My Brain – Pieces of my Bullet Journal

Left Page 1 – Medium size up and down arrows signalling how well I started doing my task

Right Page 2:

Top Right Section: Task Difficulty (Hard/Quick/Epic)

Left Column: Self-Care Status (Fuel/Move/Breathe/Water/Walk – based on what little I’ve seen of the IOS app aloe bud)

Right Column: Up and Coming Next Actions

Bottom Column: Fear Range (Risk, Neutral, Hiding)

Center space for summary of my task including where I have those tasks listed down in which apps.

Left Page 2: This

Right Page 2: My Journal


Just the Beginning:

If you checked out the link of how many apps I use, you know this isn’t all there is to it.

For example, when things shut down – I resort to this app as my sole go-to mobile to-do list:

  • It has a quick one top priority system
  • It has easy big buttons to reschedule the dates including +1 month options
  • It has sound effects

It doesn’t fit the identity I established for my dashboard though so I have to fix that one day if I ever publish my productivity guide but the point is – with an identity you can get far with even the most complex of productivity systems and get things done while reducing redundancy.

Without an identity – it’s very hard to produce a working set of templates much less be committed to them.

Review of what you need to get started:

  • Identity

The thing that forms the structure of your system. Think body parts – you end up producing a different route for logging and reminding yourself of what to do

  • Principle

The thing that directs your design. Think big then you end up with something more complex. Think small then you end up with something minimal. Think sets of small things forming a big thing and you end up with something working.

  • Memory

The thing that contains your templates and tasks. Any process or element which allows you to not only do a weekly review of your tasks but a later review of your system allows you to tweak your system. It may seem obvious but what is not so obvious is how some things belong to the digital (screenshots of your paper templates) and how some things belong to your paper notebook (Order of apps you are browsing and when and where to log a task/project not because of its url or you feel like it but because that forms the reason for your routine. Routines that are based off the identity of your productivity system.)


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