What Works for Me

I’m a curious person. I enjoy learning about what makes us productive and have spent countless hours scouring the web for the best and ideas. I then incorporate these tips into my own methodology and systems, only to begin anew when the next "cool" toy passes across my radar. I’m sure many of you also enjoy seeing what others use and how they use it. So welcome to my toys and my mind. I hope you enjoy seeing what I use to get everything done.

This article series explores, in depth, the paper-based and electronic tools and methodologies I use to keep my busy and active life wrangled and in order. These are the tools and toys I use daily to get a whole lot done. This week I’ll explore my paper-based methodology and the collection of toys first. Next week, I'll open up my digital life and show you all the gadgets and software. Finally, in three weeks, I'll give you tips on how to merge your paper and electronic worlds to make your own DIY system.

Hipster PDA
Why it works for me? It's flexible and captures the spirit of DIY perfectly. I love that you can get as fancy as you want with the hipster. From a stack of cards to using a bound version with fancy colors that help you separate your life, the hipster is just a varied as our laptops.

Being introduced to the hipsterPDA is what got me into my productivity streak and DIY Planner. I was working for a major corporation at the time, going to many meetings and carrying a really heavy 3-ring binder around. Enter Merlin Mann and his hipster PDA idea. What elegance, what brilliance! I was amazed at how free it felt using those pocket sized cards. I decided to test this new idea out, giving myself a week with a small case and a few cards. Just to see if they could do everything my large notebook could do. Within a few hours, after the first trek across campus, I was hooked and ready to toss my large notebook and planner. Not only was it physically lighter, but I loved not having spirals get in the way of my writing. This is important to me, as other lefties can agree.

Back in those days, I used a slim hipster that held a meager 50 cards. Colorful dividers separated my cards based on keywords that held meaning to me. Shortly after, I graduated from that slim case to an all out Levenger version: complete with Plastic Folders and a shiny Leather Rope Accordion File (holding over 80 cards). However, I didn't stop there. These days I'm using a the Levenger Circa PDA to carry my thoughts around between home and work. Oh, I still use the bound PDA. It currently sits on my desk and holds all my current project and story ideas. I consider the Accordion Case to keep the long term and on-going project case while the Circa PDA is the portable-toss-in-my bag-daily-use hipster capture device.

Through Merlin and the hipster links, I found this blog, called A Million Monkeys Typing weblog. Where the author wrote a post requesting writers for some new site idea he had. Eighty posts later... well, here we are.

Index Cards
Why it works for me? The small size frees my mind from feeling intimidated.They are the best size to quickly capture the constant stream of thoughts and ideas my mind churns out. Index cards are great when you want to capture bite sized notes and ideas that sit on a single card. I don't worry about ruining a card like I sometimes do with my bound notebooks. I can store or trash the cards as I please and they take up little space when I'm out and about.

Pile of Indexcards
Why it works for me? This is the first system for note-taking that's appealed to me on different levels. It's simplistic, caters to the creative side with it's fun icons, and plays well with my organizational side as well. It's also very flexible and can be used for any career or scholastic discipline you throw at it. I also find it fun to see how many lines each category contains in my growing box. Hawk calls this the DNA of your mind and note-taking and can show you just how often you spend in one section or another.

Pile of Indexcards is the brainchild of a guy known online as Hawk. I discovered this site about a year ago. His wiki describes his system far more in depth than what I'm covering here. So I highly recommend you read through it. Below is the main section that inspired me to incorporate his system into my own.

Hawk's system revolves around tagging your thoughts with icons based on four simple categories. Each card is dated and then tagged with a line across the top for storage. The following describes the four categories and symbols:

  • Record. These cards have a icon of a circle on them. Use this card type to contain journal thoughts, health notes, appointments, phone numbers, etc.
  • Discovery. These cards have an icon of a light bulb. Use this card type to write down your personal thoughts and discoveries. Things like my DIY articles and other wacky ideas about my life, the universe and everything in between get written here.
  • GTD or To Do Lists. These cards have a check-box on them. Use this card type to write down all the items you need to do that day, week or before an major event. I leave the check-box blank until all items on the card have been filled.
  • Reference. These cards have a open book icon on them. Use this card type to keep track of famous quotes, web quotes or things others have said that you want to keep for later reading.

D*I*Y Planner Forms
Why this works for me? Well, other than the obvious *ahem*... I fell in love with Doug's forms before I knew of this site. I love pre-printed forms ad Doug's were the best out there at the time. Professionally done and catering to all aspects of life; rather than just the basic planner concept.

My hipsterPDA would be extremely empty if not for Doug's (and our forum contributor) DIY Planner forms. They fill much of the pages of my bound and file hipsters. My trusty companions are always here when I need to write something down. My current favorite forms include:

  • Project Cards-- all my current "projects" go on one of these cards with their associated notes.
  • Potentials Quicklist-- I store to-do lists and any Someday/Maybe projects on this list. Sometimes the grocery list goes on one of these cards.
  • DIY Planner Storypack-- ideas for any story, character, setting go on these cards as well as story snippets themselves.
  • Storyboards -- single frame with lines to write under it. Great for sketch journalling.
  • Various others -- I occasionally rotate and try out new forms when they catch my eye. Currently, I have a few finance, address and harmony sheets in my desktop hipster.

Levenger Circa System
Why it works for me? It's a binding system like no other. I'm able to quickly bind and rebind, sort and remove paper quickly and without thinking. As I use the top-bound variety, it also doesn't get in the way of taking notes. I love how I can recombine my hipster and reconfigure it to fit any project need. Smurfing paper with the Desktop Punch is also fun. Of course, I also love having the cool factor of a leather bound case.

Thanks to a certain review done last year on Levenger's Circa system, I've found another way to organize my cards. The Circa system not only gives me the flexibility to bind any size of paper into one notebook (I have several project binders that share letter size, index card size and junior pages.). I'm able to choose whether or not I want my cards bound on the side or top. And thanks to the handy Desktop Circa punch I can Circa-fy any piece of paper (or D*I*Y Planner form) and add it to my journals. I also use the Levenger Circa White and Color Tabs to keep all my thoughts organized by project.

Why it works for me? Hopefully this one is self explanatory. *smile* However, I am picky about pens and ink. I prefer the fine to micro line widths (my current standard is .38mm). My favorite ink colors include black, blue, green and purple.

What would capturing notes be without a pen or two or twenty? *ahem* Yes, I'm addicted to pens. Besides gel pens, my current favorite pens include the Uni-ball Singo Elite 38mm, Uni-ball Vision Elite, and the Zebra F-301 Compact. The Uni-ball Singo Elite has a very slim line and works beautifully on the index cards. It's thin enough to work with the tiny lines printed on the DIY forms. The Uni-ball Vision Elite add color to my notes. And when I need a compact pen to go on the road, I use the Zebra F-301 which folds into itself so it's just a little longer than the short end of an index card.

Organizers and Storage Devices
Why it works for me? My house would get messy if I left all my forms and cards laying around. Small containers keep my thought tracking devices everywhere so I can have them when I need to write something down. I also like to keep a permanent record of my thoughts, therefore storage is a necessary for me.

I have several containers at home and at work to corral all this paper. Sitting on my lap desk, I have a small metal holder by Eldon (the link was the closest thing to what I have that I could find). This holds various pens (including a Sharpie for those burned discs), index cards and some screen wipes for my MacBook. I've divided the index cards up by types using Levenger's Plastic Index Card Tabs. This way, I can quickly grab a new card when I need to jot particular thoughts down. I have a similar set-up at work, except that organizer rotates and holds a few more pens, a ruler, scissors, and a stapler.

Soon, I'll purchase one of Levenger's PDA Docking Stations. The moment this gem came out, I saw an immediate need and had a strong desire to buy three of these. Two for home (I have a second hipster project that begs for a dock), and one for work. Not only would they contain everything my current "dock" has but they also include a cut-out (the true dock) to set your hipsterPDA into it. Perfect, elegant and compact.

In the archive department, I use a collapsible storage box for all my archived index cards. I purchased two of these at Office Max. The cards are divided by month and seeing that I have yet to go beyond a whole year of note-keeping with this system, I'm not sure what I'll do when I hit the annual mark.

Why it works for me? I am a writer. Journals help to keep the longer entries and exercise-like writing samples I do bound together. If you know your thoughts are going to go over a card or two or three, I'd switch it over to the journal where I have the space to go into details with what I'm writing about. Currently, I use a Pocket-sized Moleskine that's wrapped in a Renaissance Arts case that also holds a few index cards.

Why it works for me? My current bag works for me because it is lightweight, allows me to carry everything I need and also doubles as a protector for my MacBook. It's lightweight and feels like an extension of my body.

I'm always on the go. And when I do head out away from my abode, I carry the minimum with me: a journal, my hipster, two pens, a reading book and a tarot deck. Not to mention my iPod, wallet and keys. But not just any old bag can do. I love slingbags. I've tried messenger bags and just can't deal with how the bag weight hits across my hip when I move.

You'd think that with all I have going on here, the only bag to use would be big enough for all this AND the kitchen sink. All my bags were chosen for particular purposes and features. My number one bag, recently revamped to fit my beloved MacBook, is called Buzz by Tom Bihn. It holds enough room for my MacBook, a few books, my tarot deck, hipsterPDA, wallet, and keys. Oh and a water bottle for when I'm out on the town.

All these items and categories come together to help keep me organized day in and day out. They give me space to write the ideas that flow constantly from my mind and keep me on top of everything I need to do without forgetting much. And with that, I think I'm going to wrap this up as it's a bit long. There's enough good ideas in this article to keep you all busy and entertained until next week I hope. Next week, I'll be back with more of what works for me when we dig into my digital life and what I use to keep my online life organized. Feel free to leave me questions and comments.

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Great article!

I have started a new forum for discussing just this sort of productivity design. It is just getting off the ground, and I'd love to see your input.

Click here and join the discussion.

great writeup

I love how you cover just about everything this group tends to like in one writeup. You hit Levenger products, pens, the hipster PDA, and even the Macbook!

One question for you: you mentioned using Circa products in a top-bound fashion. Do you do that for everything or just your Hipster PDA?

I use a Jr. size Levenger notebook as my planner and have taken to keeping a pen and business-card size notebook (Levenger MicroPDA) in my wallet. A top-bound Levenger planner would be neat, but you'd have to make your own cover and it may be tricky to find a zipper binder it would fit in well.



I did that hack for having the two notebooks in one on my blog... not sure if you have seen it.

My latest idea works in a similar fashion - just have the back cover stapled on the left side and the top circa punched. (you could glue or staple or laminate or sew). The extra back cover that is stapled to the circa back cover will slip into the horizontal loading pocket of the zip folio.

I should probably type this up sooner rather than later :D Pictures would be a help, eh?

Its how I'm going have a top bound compact size notepad or a quarter letter sized one in my compact zip folio :D

my artwork | my blog

My setup

This is my setup:

I use a shirt pocket briefcase with an assortment of blank index cards and DIYP forms. I have it clipped to a Moleskine Cahier that I use as a catch-all for ideas I want to write down.

I have a letter-sized Rolla binder from Staples that I use for meeting notes and articles I print out for reading later.

I also carry a book-carrying bag, which carries a junior Rolla, a Moleskine 2007 calendar, a Moleskine Pocket Reporter, and a Moleskine Pocket Accordion File. I also have one of those pens with the four buttons for different colors of ink. I sometimes use the Reporter for meeting notes and personal ramblings.

[linkified by innowen on 8/15/07]


Hi innowen,

I really enjoyed your article and I'm looking forward to reading the next one but I was just wondering, what you use as your "diary" as such?

Do you keep track of important dates / events on index cards in your hipster PDA or do you use the DIY Planner templates?

I'm just curious :)


answers to your questions, i hope

Hi Jess,

Thanks for the kind words on my article. I use two different things for my "diary". I have normal sized journals that are either books I have made or others have made. These record my longer journal thoughts about life. I usually doodle, paint and glue items into these books.

I also use a combination of index cards that are not bound in my CircaPDA and circa-bound index cards for when I'm in need of a quick jot down or am at work. Yes I do write down important dates on index cards. I have one sitting right here that tells me the dates and the number of a friend who's coming into town soon. And another to remind me about my upcoming doctor appointment. That also has his number written down in case I need to call and cancel.

The unbound index cards always get placed in a box for later perusal. It's become another journal per se. Many of the bound cards may get put in the box, but most of the times I throw those cards away when I am done using them.

I use a mix of grid ruled index cards from Levenger and DIY Planner templates to fill my pages. Which one I select, depends on what the information is going to be.

And keep being curious! I don't mind sharing my gear and ideas with others.

Does this help answer your questions?


I enjoyed your article, and all previous articles very much. I am having trouble understanding how Hawk processes his pile of index cards. I like the idea of how things are captured, but how does one put these into action?

Hawk's method in action

Thanks DIYgurrl...

I'm not 100% clear on how Hawk uses his cards but I can tell you how I use mine. I break the 4 category cards down into two types. Action and Reference. This type tells you how I'm going to use the cards.

1. Action-able cards. These include cards that have appointments or to-do grocery lists, or ideas for certain DIY articles. I keep these cards out and on my desk where I can see them (hence the need for the Levenger docking station, until the task or appointment ends. When that happens, I pull out the archive box, and place the cards into the stack with all the others, according to date.

2. Reference cards. These are cards that have quotes or diary entries on them, or other reference materials. Generally these are things I'd like to save for future use but don't need to keep out on my desk or in my Corded Hipster. I put these cards in the archive box. And when I need to look up the reference... I can shuffle thru the cards and find what I am looking for.

I know that my process isn't the best or most streamlined but it works for me now with what i have. Maybe in the future I'll have to modify how I save the cards I want. But I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

Hawk and many others take this one step further by digitizing their cards. They scan the card as an image or text and then save them for retrieval by whatever software they prefer. This way they can index them and find them faster than looking thru a box. I'm not sure I want to go this route because then I'd be duplicating or throwing away a lot more cards than I do now. However, I may end up having to go this route in the future, with my chosen app of DEVONthink, if I decide that I can't afford to keep the written records.

I know that Hawk also does weekly reviews of his cards and notes. From what I recall, he weeds out the cards he doesn't want to keep or transcribes notes he's taken in his field guide onto cards and then imports them to his system. Doing a weekly review helps him remember why he wrote the info down and where it may get used best in his own mind.

I hope this helps answer your questions.


Enjoyed this article

Thank you for writing this. I read ... couple days later reread. Lots of stuff. This wasn't just about the stuff, but how you use it, why you use it. That helps me to figure what might work for me. I can get wrapped up in all the toys of pens, paper, boxes and not get it actually working.

Visited Hawk's site. Now I want to know how to get to the US his Field book and then nice grid 3x5 cards. I keep looking at the inexpensive grid cards in Wal-Mart, Staples and they are not cut the same. I too wonder how he "uses" the cards. maybe it was there and I glossed over.


hawk's setup

Thanks Wbb for your kind words. Last I heard, Hawk was selling the cards and books that he uses on his site. However, a brief check shows he's not. Still, read these two pages for comments on his gear:

talks about the cards and pens
talks about the field book

Unfortunately, i failed to find any Japanese Stationary websites that posted their info in English. Maybe you'll have better luck? Until someone makes a nice and consistent quad ruled index card (printed all the way to the sides) I'll stick with my guide post for marking the Levenger cards.


A Bit of info on the Field Book

I asked the FPN, Fountain Pen Network, if anyone knew how to find/purchase the notebooks in the US. Nothing. But a couple days later in a discussion of moleskins someone said they buy the Field Books in IL at a Japanese grocery with a bookstore. So now we just need to hit all the Japanese stores in the US.

There are importers of Japanese fountain pens,or other writing notebooks maybe we can get them to offer the books and grid cards. Something will happen.

One alternative is

to Do It Ourselves
Print grid on letter size stock and chop it down
Print just a key guide on cards

(Runs off to basement print-lab with a pile of fresh index cards...)
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

What's a key guide ?

"(Runs off to basement print-lab with a pile of fresh index cards...)"

And how did the time in the print-lab turn out? Success I'm sure.

froogle and other sites...

A quick search on Amazon and froogle do produce a few sites that sell Grid index cards made by Oxford or Esselte.
The following are two of the cheaper more reasonably priced sites. I had not thought about looking or them in Asian grocery or stationary stores. Some University Bookstores might have them too...

Yes, but...

grid cards are easy to find.

The PROBLEM is finding grid cards that have a grid that lines up card-to-card.

Check it out for yourself.
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

They're easy to find...

... in the US. Up here, they are impossible to find.

You have a printer, eh ?

Well... ?
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

field book

His website is very cool. Lot's of good ideas. The field book is really an INBOX. A Moleskine could be used for this as well as Target's many very good elastic-band notebooks. Most have lines however (I like the blank pocket Moleskines).

The main reason that everyone wants the consistent grid cards is because of the marks he puts at the top. You basically want the marks to line up in the boxes. A simple way around this would be a card guide wherein you mark the top edge of the card based on the guide. Then the marks will line up at their tops.

insomnia cure

Field Books

Greetings from Florida USA ..

I like using Survey Field books as a journal. There are several sizes available and different types of grid. The paper is heavy, takes fountain pen ink very well, and the pages are water resistant. Just Google - Survey Field Books , Very similar to what Hawk uses. I use these mostly for meeting notes and daily journal.

The Miquelrius Flexible Notebook is constantly in my back pocket for quick notes and reference. About 2.8x4.7 inches, leatherette cover,internal pocket and elastic band. I buy mine from the guys at pendemonium.com . Fits better in a pocket and much less expensive than Moleskine. The paper is a little thin, but it is just too handy not to carry. The grid paper version is my favorite, dark enough to provide guidance, and light enough not to get in the way.

Good luck to all

Need a push to use my CIRCA pda

Hi! You sound like a person who really has it together! I need advice. I have been carrying around my Junior Circa agenda and I have punched 3x5 cards to ride over the agenda pages for diet choices and Next action. I do not have a satisfactory solution to Projects and ideas. Is it cumbersome to use two things to carry around---an agenda and then a pda fot the projects and ideas? I already purchased the pda some time ago and found it too small for the agenda because my writing is large.

Thanks ahead of time.

"To fly, we must have resistance."

4x6" index cards

Try out 4x6" index cards. Still very portable and fit in your Junior size Circa. I keep 4x6" Circa notebooks by the phone at home and if there's something I need on one of those pages, I just take the page and toss it in my planner. Ain't Circa great? :-)