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Systemising: notebooks

I have to admit it. I’m a pen and paper person. I like writing. Which means being a notebook and pen person when it comes to to-do lists, project ideas, journalling, taking notes, and pretty much everything else too.
Now this is fine, but it has its limits.

On the one hand, the single-notebook option is great, right up until your trusted notebook flops open on a personal journal page in the middle of a business meeting.

On the other hand, the one-notebook-for-each-purpose option works well, until you have so many that you can’t remember what you put into which one. Either you end up carting all twenty of them around with you (great for resistance training, not great for speedy manoeuvres) or you find yourself too often without the right one for the particular job in front of you.

You might even end up oscillating from using one book to using many books, and back again, until you lose track of too many things, you have piles of barely-used notebooks scattered around your office, and organisationally you’re falling apart at the seams.

Having tried all of the above, it was time for something different. Time to take the best bits of what was working already, fill the gaps of what didn’t work, and create a system that worked for me.

My main priority for the notebook system is clarity: clarity between what’s work and what’s not (being a mostly-working-from-home entrepreneur means this distinction is highly prized – but easy to lose), clarity around what needs to be done now or this week, versus what can be done later, clarity between projects, tasks inside projects, standalone tasks, habits, ideas, plans for future things, and everything else.

First things first, I decided to have one notebook (or set of notebooks) for work, and one set for me personally. At this stage, I hadn’t decided how many notebooks would be in each set. But it seemed like a good idea to have separate physical items. When I’m working, I don’t see my ‘me’ to-dos, when I’m in me-time mode, I don’t see my work to-dos.

Next, I’d discovered in previous years that using one book for both journalling and to-do listing didn’t work so well. The lists would get lost, while the journalling didn’t flow from one entry to the next, punctuated as it was by the to-dos and other ideas. So the obvious separation here is to have a to-dos book, and a journalling book.

Finally, a diary for keeping track of appointments, deadlines, holidays. The diary works for both personal and work. activities

So the complete set of notebooks is:

  • Work to-dos
  • Work journal
  • Personal to-dos
  • Personal journal
  • Diary

I’ve been using this system of notebooks for the last month, and the clarity they’re helping to bring in is fantastic.

I use the work to-dos book to plan each week. I list Small Jobs in each week, as well as writing my main projects for each week across the top of the page. You can see more on my simple weekly planning here.

Each week I complete a weekly review and plan in my work journal, using my own version of Scott Dinsmore’s weekly planning framework. I also use it to sketch out models and frameworks that I use when coaching clients, and for self-review sessions after each coaching session. Reflections on CPD (continuing professional development – a.k.a. my work-related learning) also go into the journal.

I should own up to not being completely analogue anymore. January has also seen me using the online Evernote tool to collate notes and project ideas. These keep my to-do and journalling notebooks trim and streamlined, uncluttered by projects in development. In emergencies, I use the back pages of my to-dos books to collate ideas before transferring them to Evernote.

In Evernote, I’ve used a similar structure for creating notebooks: work, CPD, home. This keeps life simple. I don’t tend to duplicate paper and online notes – they either fit into a paper notebook or an Evernote one.

The big difference is that Evernote gives me somewhere flexible to note down my projects in development. My old notebooks used to be a jumble of projects, plans, lists, and journal pages. Now my projects have their own homes, without each needing a separate notebook or folder of loose-leaf papers, which just gets messy. These online notebooks can include parts of the projects that I’ve already developed, plans, overviews, things to follow up, and notes that range from sketchy to fully fledged.

For example, I’ve recently been tackling my marketing plan. Inside my Evernote work notebook, I opened up a note and called it @ Marketing Plan. If you’re wondering what the @ is all about there, it’s a handy way to make sure that certain notes are listed at the top when you organise alphabetically. The note stayed blank for a couple of days. Then when I had ideas about what to include in it, I jotted them down in the note. A little later, I cut-n-pasted from a marketing plan template that I found in a website into this note. When it was time to work on my marketing plan, I opened up the Evernote note, created a document file and copied things as and when necessary into the file. All the content – my ideas, notes, and the template – was all there, ready and waiting for when I’d scheduled time to work on the plan.

This same process in a notebook, would have felt very different. It would have started with a page that just has a title. After a few days, a notebook page moves backwards in time – it becomes historical, rather than current – whereas in Evernote there’s much less of an idea about the progression of time. It feels more fluid and notes feel more alive. The couple of ideas would have been jotted down, much as I did in Evernote. The big difference comes with the template from the web: using a paper notebook, I could have copied this content into my notebook by hand – a long, laborious tasks, without much flexibility. Or I could have created a document and saved the content in there, or made a note of the website to go back to it when it came around to doing the marketing plan. In Evernote, I was able to copy the content straight into my Marketing Plan note. My ideas and the template were all together in one place until I was ready to put the plan together.

The personal notebooks work similarly; I’ve even started doing weekly personal reviews too after I found them so effective for both keeping me on track and for appreciating my own progress. And keeping my personal stuff private – and away from any potentially awkward moments – gives extra peace of mind.

Creating a system that works for you – not against you – is worth the time and effort you invest at the beginning. Even if it takes you a few hours, you’ll reap the benefits of that time investment over and over.

How will you make your system work better for you?

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