Just before the start of a new school year, my father used to pull out all the class work and home work notebooks I used in the previous year and tear out all the left over pages from them. He would then cut all the pages to the same measurement and take them down to a binder to get it sewn and bound. This book would have on an average 300 pages, some of which were single rule, some broad rule, some double rule and some plain. This book then would be my ‘rough book’ for the new school year. A book in which I could do all math calculations, doodle, or write notes (when I forgot the main notebooks). It used to be the book I could fall back on.
But, of course this was in school.
I have always loved stationery and, notebooks and pens have specifically been a very integral part of my life. However, as life moved towards digital, the need to write things down physically started to disappear. Writing was out & typing was in. In the one-off instance I did take notes in a book, I heard people asking, ‘you could type all that you know? and, have it synced across all your devices?’, ‘Why are you writing? don’t you have a phone/laptop with you?’; I found myself writing less and less. But, the appeal and allure of pen and paper never completely faded. Just like you never give up your childhood dreams, I held onto pen and paper in some corner of my mind, even if it was just for nostalgia sake. When I’d walk into a book shop’s stationery section and find new pens and notebooks, I’d long to buy them. But, argue against it, thinking, ‘why waste money? you are already getting the same work done, probably much more cheaply and efficiently’. Well, I couldn’t counter that.
Writing, I guess now is a hobby.
But, still, I maintained one notebook – a ‘fall-back-on’ book, a ‘rough book’ and used it as a tool to think, plan, flesh out ideas & get stuff out of my system. Once I had the clarity, I’d move that stuff into Day One (for journalling), into Omnifocus (for task management), into Evernote (for reference) and Ulysses (for writing). These were my ‘containers’ that would save my stuff for posterity and give me clarity with clear demarcations as to what was saved where. This setup worked. I wrote points for my blog posts, that I moved to Ulysses to flesh them out; wrote quotes, passages from books that I moved to Evernote for reference; and spontaneous ramblings that got moved to Day One. However, I also noticed one thing – I never looked into Day One or Evernote or Ulysses. I never went back to the stuff I saved.
What I found was, I was referencing the rough notebook in which I was capturing all the ‘dirty work’, more because it was easy (since all was in one place) and often for clarity, to see connections between the stuff I wrote. What personal scenario lead to projects on Omnifocus, what rambling later became a blog post, what two lines later became a journal entry. In this notebook, I could see progression – how I changed over time. The ‘rough notes’ in which I never bothered to write legibly or beautifully, in which I did not hesitate to write in the margins or doodle, became the book that reflected ‘me’.
Since these rough books were a part of my workflow, I didn’t have to change my lifestyle/workflow to incorporate them. One was always with me and so got used. As books started getting filled-in with snippets from articles & books, quotes, tasks, I wanted to bring some kind of organization to bring-in some clarity to the chaos when I stumbled upon ‘Bullet Journaling‘. I already had notations that I was using in my rough book – check box for tasks, hyphen for notes & star for important stuff and, after binge reading about the bullet journal, trying various layouts, I borrowed and incorporated the ‘Index’ & ‘numbering of pages’, added a ‘key’ page, and learnt to draw a few headers & containers. Now, my rough book is still a rough book which I don’t hesitate to wreck, but, it is now also a system thanks to the ideas of bullet journaling.
I know writing in a notebook is not for everyone. But, if you do like maintaining a notebook, I highly recommend you take a look at the official bullet journal website and borrow all the concepts that are applicable to you. There are however, some lessons I learnt in all the time I was maintaining notebooks.
- Don’t use a costly book or pen. You should not feel guilty for making mistakes. When I used a Moleskine, (the cost of which can provide rations to an individual for a month), I only wanted to include the best in it. I didn’t want to use it for thinking. I wanted to use it for the output of that thinking. I wanted only ideas ‘worth’ it, go into it. As a result, it never got used. Same with a costly pen. You should not hesitate to write/doodle or leave the pen unattended. You should not feel as if you are wasting precious/costly ‘ink’ while writing.
- Give yourself permission to wreck it. I purposefully call my books, ‘rough books’. To me, it means, they were never meant to be as beautiful as the class works of school time. This gives me the courage to make mistakes. Rough books are built for them. If you hesitate to make mistakes, you’ll hesitate to write, you’ll not think out on paper. This defeats the purpose of having a notebook.
- You don’t have to show it to anyone. It’s not for display. It’s only for you. It should make sense only to you. You don’t have to take pictures and post it on Instagram (unless ofcourse you want to). It’s for your eyes only. So, be honest. Write your heart’s content.
- Don’t reinvent your workflow. You already know what works and what doesn’t in your life. The tool you employ should enable you to, and not stop you from working/doing/being better. First, identify what works, a digital solution? an analog solution? a combination of both? What aspects of digital should you make use of and what that of analog should you use? I don’t do weekly spreads or monthly spreads, because I work in an environment where I spend close to 4 hours every day in meetings that get scheduled and rescheduled on the fly. Maintaining an analog system to track all my meetings might drive me crazy. So, I rely on digital calendars. Similarly, I use Todoist to maintain a master list of tasks I have to work on. I copy the tasks I want to work on a specific day from it into my notebook and get going from there. In the same manner, you need to identify what works for ‘you’. Don’t hesitate to customize a system. Add what makes sense and ignore what doesn’t. There is no ‘one’ way to do things.
- Commit to using a notebook. When we start a new notebook, we ‘think’ we’ll use it in such and such way. But, it is only after we fill it up that we know how we actually used it. We might think some concept might work for us, only to find we never used it or that it was not feasible at all. We might come up with our own systems to keep track of information. But, you’ll know all this only after you start using a notebook; not, before it.
- Maintain one notebook. When you try to maintain separate notebooks for work & for personal use, you first have to carry them all with you. Second, you might’ve already realized this – you’ll not have all work related thoughts popping up at one time and all personal thoughts popping up at some other time. When something is in your mind that you want to write down, you should not have any resistance to do that. Not having the ‘right’ book with you can stop you from making notes. So, I found a better system would be to maintain one notebook, write everything down in it and then copy them into their individual books when there’s time. (I have one exception to this – if you journal, i.e., maintain a diary, in which you write in detail of how your day went (with names), then you might want to keep this part separate).
The best part with notebooks is, you don’t have to agree with me or anyone in how to use them. Just open one or turn the page and get going.