Action Item List Formats For Essays

I started this article looking for 101 call to action examples.

My plan was to review the all-time great copywriting controls and find the calls to action that made them so effective.

After all, they were written by the historical greats.

But I hadn’t read more than a handful of mailings when I discovered something interesting. All the CTAs were essentially the same.

Well, that was a bust!

Or was it?

I found some interesting parallels between traditional direct mail calls to action and the digital calls to action being written today. And I found three criteria for effective CTAs that work no matter what format you’re using.

Let’s take a look…

First, some traditional calls to action

Reviewing traditional direct mail promotions, I found three things that nearly all calls to action accomplish. See if you can find them in this line-up of old CTAs. (I’ll tell you my findings below.)

Sales and Marketing Management Magazine

So if you were waiting for the perfect time to seize this opportunity, the time is now. Send for your free issue today.

Outside Magazine

Discover the exciting world of outside. Subscribe today.

Success Magazine

Get a taste of SUCCESS! Send me the form at the top of this letter and I’ll send you the next issue of SUCCESS absolutely free.

Harpers Magazine

May I send you a free copy?

There is no obligation attached to my offer…

Please let me know if you’ll accept my offer by January 31.

House & Garden

So indulge—in so much excitement, for so little! Please take advantage of our “Summer White Sale” and save on a subscription to HG today.

Those were the more creative ones. But the majority read like this:

Do mail your acceptance to me today.

So act right now. The postage is paid and you’ve got nothing to lose but a great garden to gain!

SEND NO MONEY NOW! But please mail your card today!

So if you’re looking for knowledge, a rewarding adventure, and the advantage a future perspective can offer, mail the enclosed card today!

See the pattern?

The CTA is your final instruction to your reader, so (duh!) there won’t be 101 variations.

In direct mail, you have to tell people to “mail the enclosed card.” In digital marketing, we ask for a click.

No matter how creative we get, it still boils down to this one request.

But if you look closely at the examples above, there are three things that nearly all the CTAs include:

  1. A no-obligation statement that removes or reduces risk. In many cases, they’re asking for a free trial rather than a purchase. In other words, try us, you’ll like us. This gives people the confidence to buy.
  2. All of them contain some version of “Mail your acceptance card.” This is simple usability. You have to tell people what to do next. Today it would read, “Click the button below.”
  3. Encouragement to respond right away. That’s standard direct response. Don’t give people an option to wait and think about it.

Let me show you a few more examples

Transferring traditional techniques to digital formats

Some digital CTAs perfectly mirror the old mailings. Take this one from Stansberry Research’s Retirement Millionaire promotion.

The pattern is there:

  • Try it, you’ll like it: “Try” is in all caps.
  • There’s no obligation, which is the modern version of “send no money now.”
  • He wants a response “right away.”
  • Click on the “subscribe now” link to fill out a form.

Now let’s look at some other formats for CTAs…

The “why not” argument

Sometimes there isn’t a strong reason to take action. But there’s no reason not to, either. Here’s how W Magazine used this logic in an old direct mail piece:

This offer may not last long. So order W now—and see what you think of your free issue. After all, with so much to gain—and with absolutely nothing to lose—shouldn’t you at least take a look?

And here it is in a recent 1-2-3 Shrink promotion:

Your CTA needs to make you want to click, and let’s face it, there isn’t always a compelling reason to try something. Price can get people’s attention, but it’s not good for business, so a common alternative is to ask, “why not?”

Making it all about the benefits

This old Audubon promotion didn’t just offer a subscription. It offered “all the benefits of membership.”

To begin receiving AUDUBON at once and to enjoy all the other benefits of membership in the National Audubon Society, simply return the enclosed form.

If you can offer membership in an exclusive group, this may be a useful approach. But what if you aren’t offering a club, per se?

Focus on the benefits of responding, like this “Off the Grid” promotion from Sovereign Investor:

Who doesn’t want to protect their wealth, build a fortress around themselves, and live a richer, more satisfying life?

Leading with a strong CTA

Here’s the headline in an old Earthwatch promotion:

Got some free time? A week? A month? A summer?

Come volunteer for a conservation project in the wilds, an environmental project in the tropics, an archeological dig abroad.

Or if you’re busy now, cheer us on from the sidelines.

Adventure? Save the world? Wow! It even has a built-in call to action, the “come volunteer” statement. Today, I’d recommend following this headline with an order button.

The call to action for this promotion is good, but not nearly as compelling.

Remember, the CTA must tell people what to do next. Which means it can’t always have the same excitement level as your headline or lead. Here’s how Earthwatch did it:

If our organization sounds like something that you too would take pleasure in being a part of—whether by participating actively, or cheering us on from the sidelines—I urge you to send in the order form at your earliest convenience…so your adventures can begin with the very next issue of EARTHWATCH.

Can the lead ever work as your CTA? In the Earthwatch promotion, it could have. But back then, you had to provide instructions for how to respond.

Today, people are comfortable with responding to digital offers, so you don’t need to provide the instructions that made their CTAs clunky. You can simply provide a link or button—and people know what to do.

Here’s a digital promotion that pulls off this technique quite well.

It was introduced in an Early to Rise email like this:

Click the link, and you land here. There’s nothing on the page but the CTA.

Selling the trial

Because people are so comfortable with digital formats, your CTA can almost be implied. (Implied, but not forgotten!)

Prevention promotions typically ask for a Try rather than a Buy. It sounds less obligatory, so buyers offer less resistance.

And Prevention is so sure you’ll like their products, they give generous trial periods. Here’s one from Prevention’s Dance It Off! promotion. Notice that the actual CTA is in a graphic:

Of course, software and similar products rely on the trial too. Here’s Crazy Egg’s call to action:

This approach emphasizes the no-obligation element of strong CTAs. And it works.

Two CTAs that don’t work

I mentioned above that you can leverage people’s comfort with digital marketing, which allows you to streamline your calls to action. But you still need to be clear.

Weak or no CTA

One of the most common (and worst) mistakes in direct response is to assume people know what to do, and forget the call to action.

From my perspective, that’s what this promotion does:

This is just a portion of the page—there are floating elements that didn’t allow me to grab it all—but this screenshot has the majority of the information.

Where’s the call to action?

“Pick your city” is all I can see. That’s not compelling, risk-reducing, or benefits-oriented. In fact, if you read the fine print, the author of the book won’t be at the event.

There’s little here to compel anyone to respond.

The other extreme: too strong of a CTA

I can’t tell you what’s on the page because the pop-up acts as a pay-wall, so to speak, blocking entrance until you share your email:

Here, I’m stuck if I don’t respond.

“Join Now” or don’t view the page.

This call to action is a little too high-pressure for my taste. What saves it is the “Why we ask for email” link at the bottom of the form, the promise of 70% off, and the no-hassles language below the button.

But I still don’t want to be forced into compliance, so no thanks.

You want a strong CTA, sure, but not too strong.

The winner: A benefits-oriented, personal CTA

TheStreet’s Quant Ratings promotion showed up in my inbox, and it’s the clear winner among the promotions I reviewed.

Look at the call to action:

This CTA does a lot of things right.

  • It implies no work on your part. It’s completely benefits-oriented and personal, asking you to put TheStreet to work… for you.
  • There isn’t a vague, uninspiring “click here” command. The link is embedded in the benefit statement. And that statement is phrased as a command, so I can’t miss it.
  • There is also a button—in a bright, can’t-miss red—that offers an incentive for clicking: “Save $150.” (You’ll need to test the color that works for your promotion, but here, red does well.)
  • Urgency is subtly included in the CTA with “don’t wait another minute.” So it urges you to respond now without resorting to hype.

Does it fulfill the three criteria for effective calls to action? You bet:

  • It offers a trial membership.
  • The link and button provide implicit instructions (without going so far as to omit the CTA). It’s clear that you’re supposed to click on the link or the button.
  • You’re asked to respond now: “Don’t wait another minute.”

Not only does this call to action use the same techniques that worked in direct mail, it improves on them, because there’s no bulky paragraph telling you where to find the response device and how to submit it.

With digital, you can build the response into the promotion for a seamless user experience.

Your turn

CTAs may have changed over the years, but the goal hasn’t changed: Put the right message in front of the right people at the right time. It’s critical that you learn to do this well. And, of course, there’s no better way to learn than to be testing your CTAs.

Have you got some favorite techniques for an effective call to action? Or do you struggle with telling people how to respond? Let us know in the comments below.

As we’ve developed endless digital systems, software, and apps to help our lives run smoother, there’s a massive community of people who have opted to just strip them all away and go analog when it comes to productivity. It’s understandable, as all too often the notifications, updates, new tools, and abandoned tools tend to pile up and weigh us down.

As much as I love using digital tools to help me get things done, sometimes there’s nothing like going analog. Nothing else is quite as flexible, easy to use, and personal as pen and paper. Harvey Pekar once said of the powerful simplicity in making comics, “You can do anything with words and pictures.” And the same goes when organizing your life using a pen and pad of paper.

Some of the world’s busiest startup founders and entrepreneurs have found a simple notebook to be perfectly capable of taming the most beastly schedules and to-do lists.

But with the flexibility and power of an analog productivity system comes the struggle of staying organized and finding the right system. If you prefer pen and paper but need some help staying on top of your workload, I’ve gathered six different analog systems to help you get things done.

Whether you need an entire system with lots of structure or just some ideas about how to mark different notes, tasks, and events on paper, you should find a method here that works for you.

Boosting Productivity With Pen and Paper

Bullet Journal

Image credit:

In the past few years, theBullet Journal system has snowballed in popularity. It’s gained converts all over the world, and there’s a vibrant community on networks likeFacebook, Pinterest, andInstagram sharing their personal tweaks to the system.

The system was created by designer Ryder Carroll. It’s designed to be used in any notebook, but there’s also a specially craftedBullet Journal notebook available.

Here’s a great video that helps explain the Bullet Journal system, but I’ll also go through a brief overview of how it works below.


The Bullet Journal system consists of a few parts. Let’s take a look at the major ones.

Rapid logging

Notes, tasks, and events are all logged into the Bullet Journal in the same place. Different bullets (get it?) are used to denote what’s a task, what’s a note, and what’s an event. You can use this system to add things as you think of them, or go back and note down what happened during the day once it’s all over. It’s a to do list and a journal in one.

Image credit: Life Thinkist

The idea of rapid logging is to make everything short and sweet. As Carroll says on the Bullet Journal site:

…the more complex the entry, the more effort is expended. The more effort expended, the more of a chore it becomes, the more likely you’ll underutilize or abandon your journal.

Topics, page numbers, and the index

Each day’s task list uses the date as its topic, but you can also have lists for your projects, shopping lists, books to read, or meeting notes in your journal. It’s designed to be a one-size-fits-all notebook system. In these cases you might write “shopping list” or the project name at the top of the page, and use that as your topic.

To make everything easy to find later, an important part of the Bullet Journal system is using page numbers and topic names to index your notebook. For this reason, Leuchtturm1917 notebooks, or the Bullet Journal notebook itself, are recommended. They come with built-in index pages and all the pages are pre-numbered.

As you add new pages to your journal, writing their page numbers and topic names on the index pages means you can easily look them up again later. This also gives you the freedom to always turn to the next blank page in your notebook, regardless of whether you need a place to doodle or you’re making a focused task list.

Future log and monthly log

Since you can always use the next available page for anything you like, there’s no pre-dating daily logging pages. You simply create a new daily page whenever a new day starts. But if you’re going with an all-analog system to stay organized, you’ll need a place to note down future events or deadlines.

This is what the future log is for. It’s a simple spread across two or more pages to list down events and deadlines coming up in future months.

The future log doesn’t hold much detail, so there’s also a monthly log page type. This is simply a list of the days in a month, with events next to each day. On the opposite page you can create a monthly task list to refer to as you add tasks to your daily to do lists.

Part of what’s great about the Bullet Journal system is the huge, supportive community. Since analog organization is flexible by nature, pen and paper systems lend themselves to personal adjustments. The Bullet Journal community is always sharing various reinterpretations andextensions of the system to make it fit their personal workflows.

The Bullet Journal approach is also great if you want to have a mixture of organization and reflection in one notebook. It lends itself to both, and you can have as much of each as you like.


Image credit:

Strikethru is a lesser known approach than the Bullet Journal system, but it’s just as useful and flexible. It’s more focused on to-do lists and staying organized than on journaling.

Strikethru also has a helpful explainer video, but again I’ll explain the basics of the system below.

Strikethru also differs from the Bullet Journal by suggesting that you section your notebook ahead of time, rather than using the next available page for anything you like.

The system is designed in tiers, so you can stick to the basics if that’s all you need, or add advanced sections if you need a more robust setup.

Here’s how the different sections work:

Live list

Image credit:

This is your main to do list. You can either create a new one each day, or just create one when you’ve completed everything on the existing list. The live list is limited to nine tasks so you don’t get overwhelmed, and it’s the only place you work from in the Strikethru method, so there’s no confusion about working on items from different lists throughout the day.

Prioritization is built in, as each task has a circle on the right margin where you can rank from 1-9 based on priority. You can also opt for a simpler method and simply add an asterisk in the circles of your most important tasks.


The vault is a chunk of your notebook near the back where you keep project lists, shopping lists, ideas, goals, and so on. You can make these lists more condensed to fit more items on the page if you like, as you’ll never work directly from them.

When you want to work on something from the vault, you can carry over a single task or a whole list of items to your live list.

Unlike the Bullet Journal system, Strikethru doesn’t use an index. It does make use of page numbers, though, so again it’s handy to use a notebook that comes with numbered pages.

When you create a live list or vault list, you start by writing the task numbers down the left-hand side of the page. The page number and task number create an index number for each task—so, for instance, 201.4 would be task #4 on page 201.

With this numbering system, you can move a task from the vault (or the dump, which is the next section I’ll explain) into your live list by adding its index number instead of writing the task description out again. It’s also easy to migrate incomplete tasks to tomorrow, without rewriting them over and over.


The very back of your notebook is reserved for the dump: pages where you can doodle, take notes, plan ideas, or anything else that doesn’t fit neatly into a list. Anything in the dump that requires action can be carried over to the vault or your current live list, but as with the vault, you never work on tasks directly from the dump.

You may not even have tasks in the dump. But if you use it for meeting notes, for instance, you might notice you’ve got a couple of actionable items mixed into your notes, which can be moved to the vault or your live list.


Image credit:

In the first few pages of your notebook, you can add a calendar to keep track of time-based events and deadlines. The calendar is a simple template you can hand draw with space for writing in events and daily tasks, weekly tasks, and monthly tasks.

The Strikethru method is all about staying on top of your workload. It was created by Chris Kyle, who needed help to keep things from falling through the cracks. In his words:

6 months ago my life was a mess… So I began looking for something to help bring order to my life.

I couldn’t find something that worked for me, so I made my own system based around one to-do list each day and I called it Strikethru.

Oh, and the Strikethru name? It comes from the idea that rather than a simple checkbox, this system advocates the more enjoyable practice of striking right through a task once you’ve completed it. There’s nothing quite like that feeling!


Image credit: Patrick Rhone

Thedash/plus system is more a markup system than a method for getting organized. That is, it’s all about bringing order to your notes and tasks with a set of bullets and signifiers. It was created by author Patrick Rhone. Rhone calls it “a metadata markup system I created for paper based notes to mark the status of action items on a todo list.”

The basic dash/plus system consists of the following bullet types:

  • Dash: Incomplete action item
  • Plus: Completed action item
  • Right arrow: Action item currently waiting for another action or person before it can be completed
  • Left arrow: Action item that’s been delegated to someone else
  • Triangle: Note
  • Circle: Action item moved to another list

Here’s how Rhone describes the flexibility of his system:

The beauty of this system is that it is all built upon, and extensions of, the original dash. Therefore, it is easy to change items from one state to another (an undone action item to a done one, an undone action item to waiting or delegated) and in the case of an non-dashed item changing completely the item is circled to denote that.

So everything starts as a dash, as a dash can become a triangle, a plus, or an arrow. And when you need to change something that’s no longer a dash (for instance, a “waiting” arrow that’s no longer waiting), you can add a circle to indicate the item has been moved, and rewrite it on a new list with a new dash.

Image credit: Patrick Rhone

Rhone alsoadded some extra signifiers to the system later:

  • Light bulb: An idea
  • Asterisk: Journal/diary entry

With these extra items, dash/plus can be used for note-taking, journaling, and keeping on top of your workload.

Dash/plus is really just a way to distinguish items in your notebook, so you could use it with or without any of the more in-depth systems here, like Bullet Journal or Strikethru.

GSD, or Getting Sh*t Done

In the words of its creator, designer Bill Westerman, GSD is “quick, it’s dirty, and it doesn’t require a lot of preparation, special materials, or rigorous thinking.” When no other methods worked for him, Westerman created GSD to help him get things done, rather than wrestle with tools and systems all day.

Here are the sections that make up the GSD method:

Master list

This is simply a stream-of-consciousness list of everything you need to get done. Each item gets a checkbox. But there’s one important part to this list: each task has to be actionable. According to Westerman:

Not “figure out dishwasher repair”, but “make list of five dishwasher repair people and phone numbers”. Otherwise, they’ll just linger there on the list, mocking me, and never actually get done.

Daily list

Like the Bullet Journal system, each new GSD daily list is created on the next available page. Each daily list gets the day and date written across the top. Westerman uses a sticky tab to make today’s list easy to access.

The daily list starts with a brain dump of everything that needs to get done today. Then, yesterday’s tasks are migrated. For each task that’s not done on yesterday’s list it either gets cancelled or migrated. Migrated tasks have a diagonal line drawn through their checkbox and are rewritten on today’s page. Cancelled tasks are marked with an X in the checkbox.

When all of yesterday’s checkboxes are marked in some way, Westerman adds a check mark in the top corner of the page to show the page is completed.

Finally, anything on the master list that needs to be done today is added to the daily list. Like the live list in the Strikethru method, only tasks on the daily list can be worked on. Before starting work, Westerman adds a dot in the checkbox of the top 3-4 items he wants to get done first. When those are done, he chooses the next most important items, adds a dot to those boxes, and gets to work.

Time ladder

An optional extra is a time ladder. This is simply a breakdown of your day based on one-hour blocks. Tasks can be assigned to the time ladder in 30- or 60-minute blocks if you need more detailed organization.

The GSD system is very simple, and doesn’t include any kind of calendar or event management. If all you need is a more specific method for tracking your tasks on paper, this system could work for you.

Word notebooks

Image credit:

If you like the idea of an analog system, but don’t want to put in the effort to set up each new page with checkboxes, theWord notebooks are for you. These notebooks come pre-printed with a bullet system to help you keep track of tasks.

Each line in a Word notebook is printed with a bullet point. You can circle around the bullet to show a task is important, cross through it diagonally to show it’s in progress, and cross through it again (to create an X) when it’s complete.

The notebooks are pocket-sized, so they’re ideal for carrying around with you during the day.


Mike Vardy’sStrikethrough system is based on a similar rule to Strikethru: Any task or note without a line through it is incomplete. Strikethrough uses an arrow to show a task or note has been moved to another page or to an app like Evernote. Otherwise, it simply uses a line through tasks or notes to show they’ve been dealt with.

Vardy also uses some symbols and color-coding to add context to his tasks. He adds these letters in a circle to the right of a task to show what energy level is required:

  • H for High Energy
  • N for Normal Energy
  • L for Low Energy
  • E for Errands

Vardy also uses these colors to show at a glance what type of task is on each line of his notebook:

  • Green: Professional tasks/ideas
  • Orange: Personal tasks/ideas
  • Blue/Black: General tasks/ideas

Your own To Do list method

The best part of all these methods is that you’re not stuck with how the creators use them. You’re free to make adjustments, try new things, and build your own approach to suit your workflow.

I’m currently using a hybrid system that combines elements of Strikethru and the Bullet Journal methods, with a few unique touches that I created from scratch. It doesn’t fit into any of these categories exactly, but it works perfectly for me.

Feel free to experiment, and take the parts of each method that suit your needs.


One thought on “Action Item List Formats For Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *