The Notebook: Could It Be More Obvious?

Now, I'm just as much a paper snob... er, connoisseur as the next guy, but that can be a problem. For example, I have some nice Moleskines, quality sketchbooks and journals that I keep handy, but hardly ever use. Why's that? Well, I suspect that many of you know the feeling: they're too precious to sully with mere idle thoughts, to-do lists, memos for groceries, and so on. They are, in fact, reserved for "special" thoughts, often during long and dry stretches of no use. And yet, a thick planner can be a little too bulky to carry around absolutely everywhere, and index cards have their problems too: it's hard to shuffle a large pile and find things, and the ones with important and frequently-used notes tend to get lost in piles, migrate under books, or slip beneath a keyboard.

I've rediscovered a certain joy lately, and among all the tinkering I've done lately, it was one of the last things to occur to me, even though I did it for years -- seemingly a lifetime ago. It's the act of keeping a portable, messy, continual-brain-dump device known as a notebook.

The main reason for keeping a notebook is precisely that it is not a journal, planner, calendar, commonplace book, or anything overly precious. It's an excuse to slap down any thought, regardless of how permanent you think it is. It is for collecting.

My tips for choosing and using a notebook:

  • It should be inexpensive, but still convey a little quality. Unless you have an affinity for them, stay away from spiral-bound ones and instead opt for one with a real cover and binding. Having a cover that's water-resistant and wipable means that you won't fret taking it out in damp weather or using it at the breakfast table. Most department stores carry these for about $5 USD, and range about 120-150 pages.
  • It should fit in your bag that you tote around, ready to use at a moment's notice. If not, you'll never have it handy when you need it.
  • Label the inside front cover with your name, email address, phone number, or any other pertinent contact information. On the inside back cover, tape a small reference calendar for the year, such as the one found in the D*I*Y Planner Hipster PDA Edition, and slap in a small stack of sticky notes (about 6-10).
  • On every page, make sure to put the page number (mine is at the bottom) and the date (the top). This way, you can reference things ("see page 23") or see when something happened. Use a sticky to keep your current place, and mark pages that are currently important. As you finish each notebook, label the spine with a number and date range.
  • Fodder for your notebook: notes, half-baked ideas, inbox collection, vague musings, quotes, to-do items, snatches of dialogue, meeting notes, recipes, lists, memos, sketches, groceries, appointments, and anything that might prove useful some day.
  • Keep your notebook wherever you'll likely to need it. If you come up with ideas while taking a shower (as I do), bring your notebook to the bathroom. (Hence, getting one with a water-resistant cover.) Bring your notebook around the house as you get things done, watch television, surf the net, work in the garage, try out a new recipe, do some transplanting, or sleep (for dreams, insomnia-induced ideas, purging ideas, etc.). Keep it a constant companion.
  • Your notebook works well as a continual inbox, but be careful that things aren't lost outside of your planning system. At the end (or beginning) of each day, make it a part of your daily review. Come up with a system to denote what needs to be transferred. For example, I use a circle to mean "move this to my planner", and put a long black line in the margin to make the items stand out. A diagonal stroke through the circle means that it's been already transferred, and another one in the opposite direction (making a cross) means it's been done, so don't worry about it. Some GTD-specific examples:

    O NA@Home: Call bank about last car payment

    O Cal:01/12: Appointment with nurse for shots

    O WF@Work: Frank - Environmental Impact Report (due 02/08)

    O File: Frank's contact info: frank @, Work tel (555) 555-5555

    O File: Recipe for Frank's killer buffalo wing sauce (see card)
  • If you're using the notebook for creative purposes as well, don't forget to transfer the important bits into your system as well, whether that's a dead-tree journal or sketchbook, or software like DEVONthink, Tinderbox, Zoot, Emacs, Word, or just some handy text files. Remember, the notebook is for collection, not filing.
  • Spend some quality time with your thoughts. Take the notebook and a pen to your favourite chair, turn off the television, get comfortable, open the book, and just start writing. It's amazing what ideas come to you when your mind is open yet able to focus.

Above all, the most important thing to remember is that it is a notebook. Refer to it thus. It's for notes. It's not a journal, or a diary, or a sketchbook, or anything else precious that you resist writing in. When your mind is cooking, it's there to catch the drippings.

(Ugh. I can't believe I actually wrote that line....)

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Minds Cooking

Just need flour for gravy...

Sorry, I just had to.

Getting past the 'too nice

Getting past the 'too nice to write in' is a big step for me too. I also had somewhat of a breakthough when I realised I needed just this sort of notebook. Mine is a 'brain dump' similar to what you describe and I've been using the small Moleskine Cahiers - only a couple of dollars each and the same quality as their big brothers. Less fear factor before using them ...

delicious drippings! plus: reward offer

Nice post, Doug. I guess I'd suggest adding a "Reward if found $50," plus contact info, if the notebook is important to get back if you loose it.

Notebooks and HPDAs

Good thing about the water resistant cover.

I also get ideas while I'm in the shower or sitting in my "throne". I used to have a coverless HPDA and it got wet and the notes smudged when I wrote on them. I DEFINITELY second the water resistant cover as well.

As for the notebooks, I usually separate it from the HPDA , because my notebook is mainly used for references and planning purposes only. Tried placing it all in my HPDA and it got thick and confusing really quick. I presume that if you placed it in a planner it's going to have the same result.

Nice post! Don't worry about the corny mushy statements man. It's ok to get in touch with your "inner feelings".


I highly recommend miquelrius notebooks. Waterproof covers, color-coded pages, subject/date box at the top, and narrow lines. The paper is an excellent quality and inks (fountainpen or rollerball) don't show through at all. They also have quad paper notebooks, if you're into that kind of thing.

You can find the plain-covered notebooks at some Barnes & Noble stores and some art stores (around NYC). They have a bunch of different types (and sizes) at kates paperie on broadway, too. I prefer the lined, 6x8 version. They aren't easy to find online, but they exist.

If you're really into it (and have some time on your hands), there is also apparently a minor online debate about the benefits of moleskine v miquelrius.

I just found this blog post

I just found this blog post comparing the two notebooks. And another.

Here's a link to see examples of the miquelrius lines.

As for me I'm still excited about my new moleskine.

Moleskine and Miquelrius

Thanks for the post Doug; thanks for the mention Anon. I actually like both Miquelrius and Moleskines, each for slightly different purposes.

For personal capture I use Moleskine: sketchbook, grid for ideas, ruled for book notes and a daily diary to capture the day's thoughts. I like the hard cover, bookmark, elastic strap and pocket for these uses. Poocket works well for travel as they can be stowed almost anywhere for immediate use.

Meanwhile, I have a larger A5 Miquelrius with flexible cover and blue gridded for my work sketch ideas for logos, websites and other design related items. The cover is soft and the size is a little larger, allowing me to sketch freely, yet also small enough to carry in my cafe bag and perfectly suited to my preferred drawing scale.

There is some crossover at times, but generally they operate for different purposes. BTW, Miquelrius also offers the fleible cover notebooks in the smaller pocket size -- I have yet to try one of these out.

For more info on each of these notebooks, I've created two Squidoo lenses with resource information:

Hope this information is helpful to someone looking for notebook options and ideas!


We have redesigned the leatherlook notebooks with a strap and you can find them on our retail website as the "flexible" books. Thank you for using our products!

Moleskine heretic....

I number the top right hand page in the right hand corner. It's easier to find them that way.

I find the need for an imprimtatur with Moleskine amusing; I'm sure Hemingway et al. had shopping lists and trite thoughts to record. In fact the only one not to was Van Gogh and look what happened to him :O


The right though at the right time. I'm just here trying to reorganize my "paper" life with some notebooks and planners. But planners are simply not the right thing for taking different notes, having only one page a day stops me from being creative ...

I'll go for the notebook + calendar stuff, thanks for inspiring.

Notebooks + SAC inserts

Trying something different the past couple of days. Normally, in my Classic-size planner, I use Satellite Action Card inserts for my Next Actions and Waiting Fors. Since the SACs clip in and out easily, I've been taking them along in my notebook while I roam, as well as a Hipster PDA calendar. I must say, the system doesn't work badly at all. When I get back to the planner, the cards clip back in.

Hmmm... getting an idea for some new templates....


Borders Bookstore has a

Borders Bookstore has a collection of nice, plain vanilla, hard cover journals and sketchbooks for very reasonable prices. As a journal I'm using a 188 page 11' X 8" model that cost $5.99. I also have a $7.99 , 250 page sketchbook with similar dimensions. At those prices I can (and do)write or sketch any dippy thing that comes into my head. Its great!

I'm still using my pocket moleskin for when I go out, because they don't have a pocket size and because the moleskin has a little more cachet :-)

Getting over the "too nice to use" factor.

I employ a trick similar to dumping dirt into a new car to make it less stressful. Simply write some meaningless crap on the first page. Directions, thoughts on lunch, or just scribble. Basically anthing to make it less interesting to future scholars studying your ever-so-interesting life. The important idea is to get *something* trivial written, so you don't think "is this too trivial?" in the future.

Waterproof notebooks

I really love the "Rite in the Rain" brand notebooks for taking notes in the Pacific Northwest. However, they don't work that well with certain pens, they work best with pencils and the "Rite in the Rain" pen.

--Sara, a friend of innowen

The Newton as a notebook

Great article! It helps me to better choose a tool to collect information.

For those who want to go digital, it seems to me that the Newton MessagePad (particularly the 2100) would be a very good equivalent of a paper notebook. I will try both solutions to see which one is best for me.

to nice to write in anonymous

"hi everyone my name's joe and I've been a 'to nice to write in' note book addict now for as long as i can remenber".(quiet applaus from the group).
In Australia, 'Quill' note books come in a vast array of sizes. I'll use oany of the smaller varieties that fit into my little 'Manbag'. however just as Dave Allen says, the ideas and things you have to get done ,pop into your head at the most inopportune times. For me its when I'm in the shower and the car, both situations are not conjusive to writing anything i sue a dictaphone,which seems to work fine i can dump anything into it at any time. My girlfriend should use her ipod for the same purpose with one of those voice conversion attachement doovies, but she doesn't like the sound of her own voice on the thing.
Note books shouldn't be too nice to write in . Whats that guys name? Oh yes Richard Branson he reckons he's got a book case full of the things all full.The point is you can use them and they dont go to waist. Mine are still empty and I continue to buy the 95 cent note books from the news agent.tsk tsk.


Thank you my friend. For so long I was thinking about more "sophisticated" systems that I overlooked this option completely.