Recommended Pencils and Paper Pads

Post 6 in the series: Recommended Productivity Tools


I use pencils for pretty much only one thing: underlining and writing notes in my books. Marking up your books is an important component of active reading. Hence, unless you only read books on the Kindle, it’s useful to have some pencils around.

When it comes to pencils, the main principle is: only use mechanical pencils. The non-mechanical kind needs to be sharpened, which means you need to keep a sharpener around, which makes things more complicated than you need.

The next thing to keep in mind with pencils is the size of the lead. As with pens, I recommend smaller. I get the 0.5mm pencils.

The last thing to keep in mind with pencils is that you want one that isn’t annoying to write with. I’ve found the Bic MatiC grip to work great. (I admit it — even though I don’t recommend Bic pens at all, their mechanical pencils are just fine). You can easily get them at Target, Office Depot, or even Amazon (and they qualify for free shipping if you have Amazon Prime).

Paper Pads

Paper pads are useful to have at your desk for capturing thoughts and such things. If you have a moleskine or other journal to serve as a capture tool, you’ll usually be using that (or your iPhone or computer). But it is still sometimes useful to be able to reach for a pad of paper.

I don’t recommend the full size legal pads, because they are so big. I recommend the smaller, 5×8 pads, which are easy to get at a place like Office Depot or Target. Here is an example.

Posts in This Series

  1. Recommended Productivity Tools: An Introduction
  2. The Tools You Need to Have (And Where to Keep Them)
  3. Recommended In Boxes
  4. Recommended Capture Journals
  5. Recommended Pens
  6. Recommended Pencils and Paper Pads
  7. Recommended Staplers, Staple Removers, and Tape
  8. Recommended Scissors, Letter Openers, and Post-Its
  9. Recommended Paper Clips and Super Glue
  10. Not Recommended: Desktop Organizer Things
  11. Recommended Chairs and Waste Baskets
  12. Recommended Labelers and File Folders
  13. Recommended File Cabinets and Bookshelves
  • Steve Wilson


    So what do you recommend for marking if you only read electronically? Since I live in Ecuador, I don’t get many real books unless they are brought by people visiting here. I bought GTD as an e-book. The only ways I could think of to capture important points was to take screen shots of certain pages and paste them into a Word doc, or retype the points I wanted to capture.

    I’ve been thinking about a Kindle, but the note-taking/highlighting thing is one issue, and I haven’t found anything that says you can download the books on your laptop first. They only talk about the cell signal download, and then only in the US.

    Any ideas?


  • Matt


    That’s a tough situation. There are a lot of advantages to reading electronically, but this is one of the biggest challenges.

    I would recommend considering a Kindle. I have one, but don’t use it much yet. I think I recall that you can highlight and select portions of text on the Kindle, and even type in your own notes. I’m pretty sure of that, but I’d confirm it before getting one. (You can tell how much I use it so far!) When it comes to downloading the books on your laptop first, I haven’t heard about that possibility, either. I know you can bring your Kindle books into your iPhone, though, through the Kindle for iPhone app.

    Without a Kindle or physical books, I think the best approach is what you mentioned of retyping the points you want to capture. That is not a bad thing; I often do that even after having underlined and interacted with a book anyway. I’d probably recommend that over taking screen shots, because the act of typing the points helps cement them in your mind.

  • Pat

    Why do you use pencils for marking in your books instead of using pens? The only advantage I see is that you could possibly erase something, but there’s almost no reason to do that (maybe if you were going to sell the book?). By using pens, you no longer need pencils, so that’s one less thing to keep around. Pens work just fine for me, but I’m guessing you’ve thought this through, so I’m interested in your thoughts.

  • Renee M

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for this excellent series. I teach a workshop on study skills and was happy to link to this post.
    We have a lot of the same favorites!
    Renee M.

  • Matt

    Renee: Thanks for your words!

    Pat: I use pencils to mark in my books because I find that ink competes with the text of the book. Pencil competes less, and so I prefer that.

    The principle here is that of “the smallest effective difference.” Obviously that principle has much more significant use when it comes to websites and things such as that, but I find it makes my marking and the book easier to use as well.

  • Laure

    Like you, I’ve done geeky research on pens and pencils!

    As a result, I have a stash of the older Black Mirado Warrior pencils and I love how they look and how they write. The new ones are not the same. I already had an automatic pencil sharpener on my desk, so sharpening them is no biggie.

    That said…my geeky research also turned me on to mechanical pencils, but I have a completely different point of view about using a fine tip. DH loves mechanical pencils, but I had always disdained them. His pencils with .5 leads drove me crazy while doing Sudoku with them by continually cutting and poking right through the paper in low-cost sudoku books (that thin pale line of the .5 is hard to read on not-very-white paper, and I found myself pressing a bit too hard). And I didn’t like the cap on the eraser, it was so tiny and prone to roll away inconveniently.

    So I like the .7 and .9’s. For Dell Sudoku books, .9 is perfect. The .7 leads still have a bit too much of a sharp edge, but are still head and shoulders above .5 for that application.

    Do you write very, very small? Using a .7, writing words with caps less than 1/2 the height of a typical graph paper square (and lower case letters about 1/2 or less the height of the caps) comes out very clear.

    I found – and really, really like – Pentel’s Twist-Erase mechanical pencils. They have a nice grip near the tip, and the eraser is protected from drying out by screwing up and down from the barrel. No caps to chase across the floor! And, of course, they come in all three sizes.

    • Matt Perman

      Thanks for your thoughts! I have also found that .5 can be hard to see on some paper. So that makes good sense about .7 and .9 on those types of paper. Good solution. I do write very small! Sometimes my writing is very hard to read because I also write fast. Sometimes I am stumped trying to decipher my own writing!