Why I keep a paper notebook and you should to

In a world with so many awesome digital tools, and in a life where I love Evernote despite its issues, I still carry a paper pocket notebook every day and fill all 48 pages in about a week and a half. I also carry a large notebook in my bag that I use to take notes on whatever book I’m ‘deep’ reading. Without these two analog tools I know my days would be more scattered and my learning would be hampered.

If you want to retain more information, connect deeper with clients at meetings and do your job better, you need to start using a notebook as well.

Benefits of a notebook

Any time you have a thought you want to revisit you need to capture it. This capture phase is an important part of pretty much any productivity system and while we have many digital tools that can do this, so many things don’t fit with a digital capture space.

Take that diagram you see in a conference or meeting. While you could take a picture of the diagram, you need to first decide what your goal is. Is the goal to have an exact reproduction of it? If so, email the presenter and ask for it or look at the slides online later and capture it. If the goal is to retain why the diagram is important, then a quick sketch is going to accomplish this much better than a picture.

Any task you accomplish is all about the desired outcome. In a class is the goal to gain knowledge or capture a transcript of the topic being discussed? A number of studies have shown that writing things down by hand means you learn more, and since I’m going to assume your goal is to understand why information is important, handwritten notes will help you accomplish that goal more effectively.

The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. – The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard

Notebooks are great for capturing fragments of ideas as well. Our big thoughts don’t show up fully formed. Charles Darwin first thought of his theory of natural selection around 1838. He didn’t publish The Origin of Species until 1859, more than 20 years later. While we have a tendency to think of ideas jumping to the page fully formed, that’s not what happens. By using a paper notebook and then reviewing older ones regularly we can see the seeds of our ideas and keep revisiting the important ones, or appending new thoughts to those that are still intriguing.

Is this possible with digital tools? Of course it is but it rarely seems to happen. When I talk to coaching clients about reviewing their ideas, those with a paper notebook have some practice of reviewing the notebook from the same time last year, or from last month, or … something. Those using digital tools always figure they will simply ‘find it when they need it’ but rarely can provide an example of that actually happening.

Notebooks also take distraction of the equation. When we put our phones away and simply get bored in a line we’re doing good work building our brain for success. When reading a book, choosing a real physical book, or a bad device, is going to help you accomplish your goal of reading that book. Your notebook goes well with this since it can’t do anything but wait to be written in. Where your phone has many features — like email — which can pull your focus away from reading that book, the notebook sits content, waiting for your important ideas.

Can you use your willpower to stay away from the distractions? Sure it’s possible, just like it’s possible for me to not eat cookies in great quantities if they’re in the house. It’s just unlikely, and if you are able to succeed in saying ‘no’ to the myriad distractions on your device, you’ve now used up some of your willpower. Willpower is a finite resource. The more often you use it in a day to deflect distractions, the more likely it is that next time you’re faced with a distraction you’ll choose to be distracted instead of staying focused. Just like an overworked muscle, your willpower will fatigue and fail you.

To pocket or not?

When you’re looking for a notebook you’re going to need to decide if you want a pocket notebook or something with more writing space. Over the years I’ve used both, but my main notebook has been some brand of pocket notebook.

While larger size notebooks provide more writing space and work better for sketches, they’re not always practical to carry. If I have an idea or want to remember a highlight of the day while I’m at the park with my kids I can pull my notebook out of my pocket and write something down. If I have an idea when I’m riding my bike, I can stop and pull out the notebook to capture it.

Those larger notebooks simply can’t be everywhere we are without becoming an obstruction at some point. Sitting with a friend who recommends a movie over dinner, it’s easy to pull out the pocket notebook and write it down in the midst of getting second helpings for the various children that inhabit our lives. A larger notebook can rarely be stored on your person, and then good luck finding space for it on a full table with children (whose space requirements far exceed what their small size would suggest they need).

How I use it

No matter what profession you find yourself in, the most essential function of the pocket notebook is to provide a place to capture the ideas that spring to mind throughout the day. – Art of Manliness

I’ve talked about many ‘grand ideas’ and the ability to capture those in a notebook so I can combine the threads later. I’d love to give you some romantic notion which suggests every idea I have in my notebook is grand and just waiting to be turned into the next best seller. That is not the truth.

The first use of my notebook each day is to get some thoughts out of my head first thing in the morning. I sit down and write a bit about the day and how I feel, and really just anything.

Second, I record my workouts in it. The sets/reps I did with weights and how I felt. It’s likely I’ll add some notes about the class and the interactions with the people as well. I find that writing down a new person’s name helps me remember it.

Third, it’s a running commentary on my day. If I’m feeling frustrated with my wife or a client I write it down. Looking at the words written on a page has an amazing cathartic effect, and I always try to write down how the other person probably feels in the same situation. Once I’m through this exercise I’m almost never as worked up as I was and I’m ready to go on with the day and respond to any issues in a calmer, objective manner.

Fourth, when I’m stuck on something I start to sketch it. Maybe it’s how some data should be stored in a client project. Usually with 10 seconds of sketching with some points about what we need to do, I have a great idea of how to build what previously baffled me. No, I can’t draw well and when I say sketch, that may be anything from a typical ‘sketch’ of an interface, to a brainstorm, to a set of bullet points. The point is that the idea is getting its first pass on paper before I dive in.

Fifth, as I read, my notebook becomes a repository of the ideas that are sparked. These are the things I think will turn into the ‘big thoughts’ later, though I’m not sure which ones will be those thoughts. I’ll take a few minutes to write down a quote or a book that was referenced and then write about why I thought it was important at the time. This article started that way, as a quote and a few thoughts about why it would be good content to publish. This fifth way is also where my larger notebook may come into play. When I’m reading at a coffee shop or sitting at home I’ll often pull out a larger format book and keep taking notes in larger context of the book I’m reading and planning to review. I just don’t get beholden to the larger format. If it’s not readily available then the quotes go in my smaller pocket notebook.

Sixth, it holds running lists of ‘stuff’. Maybe it’s a quick grocery list or the three tasks I want to get done today or some list that needs to end up in my task management system later. These lists are easy to capture and reference during the day without needing yet another piece of software open on my computer vying for my attention.

Processing that notebook

While there is benefit in simply keeping a notebook, you’re going to exponentially increase this benefit if you actually do something with all the notes you’ve taken.

One of my first tasks every day is to go through my notebook and pull out any tasks, quotes, random bits, or profound ideas and put them where they belong. Quotes go in Evernote and are tagged so they can be resurfaced in many categories. For articles I plan on writing, I head into Ulysses as an idea with some bullet points. Bigger tasks get put into OmniFocus.

When I’ve pulled out all the things that need some action I take pictures of each day and put them in a single note in my ‘journal’ notebook in Evernote. This journal also contains pictures I took of my kids and other personal tidbits, in addition to my regular handwritten ramblings.

Processing doesn’t just stop at getting pertinent content out of my notebook, though. When I’m done with a pocket notebook I take a few minutes to read back through it to see what was important. At the very least I’ll smile or frown at a day that went good or bad — either way it’s a great reality check for my overall state for the previous two weeks.

Then I grab an older notebook and read through its contents just to see where I was at and what I was thinking about. Often good quotes or ideas I had forgotten about will resurface. I’ll look them up and make some more comments on them based on my thoughts of the current day.

On the Common Place Book

Some of you may have heard of a ‘Common Place Book’ and realized that what I’m building in Evernote is exactly the same thing. In fact I call the ‘stack’ of Quotes and Research and Stories ‘cpb’ which stands for Common Place Book and is simpler to type when I’m using the advanced search options in Evernote.

Others have said that you shouldn’t be using a digital tool for your Common Place Book and I agree with them in many ways. The ease of capture in digital tools makes it pretty much zero cost to add random bits of everything to your Common Place Book. I’d like to think I short circuit this and only pull out the good stuff by writing things down first in my pocket notebooks then moving them to a digital tool at a later time. I’m forced to only write down what is truly useful or truly interesting at the time due to the format of handwriting, and yet still gain the ability to search my notes and carry them with me everywhere as I travel.

I turn to my Common Place book as I look for quotes to go in posts or stories or when I’m looking to get specific on the fact of some research study I read once. The more I go back into it the more I see relationships between disparate ideas and quotes. I randomly go through sections of it every week as well, just so that I keep seeing the ideas and thinking about them.

My recommended notebooks

I have two preferred notebooks. For a larger notebook I prefer the  Leuchtturm 1917 Ruled Notebook. For a pocket notebook I prefer the Field Notes graph notebooks. A great second place is the Field Notes Expedition notebook. The drawback to the Expedition is that the paper has a very ‘plastic’ texture which means that many pens just wipe right off it. I always use an ultra fine Sharpie when I have an Expedition notebook. I use the Expedition on every trip I go on to record things since I’ve found it lasts much better than any other ‘waterproof’ notebook I’ve owned. If the Expedition would work with any pen I had around, I’d use it as my all-the-time notebook and never have one that couldn’t go out on hiking trips.

My pocket notebooks sit inside a Recycled Firefighter notebook case which makes them look a bit sexier and provides some protection in the rain to any style of notebook I’m currently using.

photo credit: thebetterday4u cc

4 Replies to “Why I keep a paper notebook and you should to”

  1. I am super low-tech when it come to this. I always have plenty of regular $2 notebooks of college rule paper and Bic pens around for just this purpose.

    Some things I use these for:
    – Writing down ideas.
    – Sketching (really) rough page layouts.
    – Making plans for the future.
    – Taking notes.
    – Writing lists of things to be done.

    When cleaning out some storage recently, I found boxes of these notebooks going back several years. What is strange to me is a lot of the places I am ending up in present day were originally written down several years ago. It’s also interesting to glance through these once in while to see where my head space was at in a given time frame.

  2. I love this with all of my heart. I was originally trained as a teacher and the connections you make in your brain are totally different when you write things down. You make neuron pathways and your brain is healthier.

  3. We recently started a back pocket notebook brand for this exact reason. When inspiration hits I find it much easier to capture that in a physical notebook rather than a phone and Evernote because you can write, sketch, or both really simply.

    The one addition we’ve gone with is to make each notebook inspirational and educational in its own right with the covers and inner covers too.

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