Modern Day Commonplace Notebook
August 6, 2014 9:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for ideas to improve creating and organizing notes efficiently. Including analog and digital devices.


I've always liked the idea of commonplace notebooks but I feel like my current set-up is limited. I carry around small paper notebooks for notes and reminders. Later on I can transfer interesting info to my digital files, for example .docs which I update as a daily journal.

I have tried organizing programs such as Evernote, Zotero, OneNote, and Google Notebooks but I found it slightly clunky for me to clip articles and have to reformat it after. Currently, I'm using The Journal 6 trial for collecting extra notes on my PC apart from MS Word.

For paper notebooks I looked into different note-taking methods not limited to the Cornell Note taking system, planners/calenders, note cards, binders, folders, and Filofax. It all starts out well enough but after a few days I rapidly lose interest in it. For example, for class notes I can either print out PPT slides as guidelines or write in a outline format with main topic followed by A, B, and etc sub-sections for each course.

I like note taking apps such as Google Keep but as we all know we shouldn't overly rely on private companies in the long run (see: G-Reader) for specific services.

Not interested:
- Encryption/security
- Archival/storage
- Ability to add multimedia (videos or music)
- High learning curve needed
- Online syncing. It's great if there's a desktop client and android app combined but I don't need it to be.
- Backup
- Tagging system
- Extensive customization

- Ability to clip/save articles online (Think: Pocket)
- Win 7/Android OS compatible
- Relatively inexpensive (<$30) Also, not too crazy about monthly subs.
- Portable for paper notebooks (A6?)
- Limited branding or minimalistic design
- Durable enough for commuting

Thanks for reading. I can make adjustments as needed if my request is too nitpicky. I have spent time looking at stationery reviews, AskMefi questions, and hobbyist forums.

Yes, I have considered just using Notepad and saving everything to .txt files...
posted by chrono_rabbit to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Awesome question! Looking forward to other responses.

I just have a few thoughts. It seems like you're looking for a system to perform a few disparate functions. Saving web content, writing down your thoughts, and transcribing paper notes to digital are very different activities, and I doubt that there's One Program that will solve all of your needs.

I use Instapaper for collecting web content that I find interesting, and anything that I "like" in Instapaper is automatically archived in Evernote. This is all I use Evernote for. Instapaper highlights are automatically published to a simple Tumblr page that functions as a kind of inspiration board.

For notes, I like Simplenote. For to-dos, I like Wunderlist. For journaling, I like Day One.

These all perform separate functions. I wouldn't get too caught up in having everything in one place.
posted by rensar at 9:40 AM on August 6, 2014

rensar: "These all perform separate functions. I wouldn't get too caught up in having everything in one place."

I see what you mean, I think I'm interested in learning new processes to change to or improve my current set-up. I don't mind if I have to use separate processes to achieve this goal. I'm not looking for a be-all and end-all program or note taking method. That's a little too complicated for me.

Sometimes I find that I want to recall a specific info or quote and I can't remember where I wrote it down. Is in my paper notebook? Word? GDrive? Mefi favorites? Bookmarks?

I also worry that my memory is (slowly) declining and I want to help myself locate old info to refresh it. For example, I'd be reading about new tech advancements but I want to remember how the history of specific tech developments.

I guess, a personal wiki for my hobbies?
posted by chrono_rabbit at 9:52 AM on August 6, 2014

Agree with rensar - you're going to have to create your own system from separate parts.

I keep two commonplace notebook systems, one for professional life and one for personal. For my professional notebook, I use the Livescribe pen and their digital notebooks. (On the offchance you're not familiar, a Livescribe pen and similar products is a real pen on real notebook paper- it's an analog method that becomes a digital product.) Then I use Evernote for these notes, which is nice because I can easily search my notes. The pen is an investment.

For my personal commonplace notebook, I'm in love with Muji notebooks. I particularly like their notebook mini, which is A5. I use each individual box for a note. (I also use these a lot for power point presentations, both for note taking and for planning them.)

Ah, just read your update. Okay, it sounds like you don't want extensive customization or tagging, but really, any kind of notebook system, digital or analog, is going to need some kind of system. For example, you keep all your quotes in a single notebook or an app. Or you have a tagging system in your notebook.

So just for analog: What I use is an indexing system in the back of each notebook. The kind of notes you're taking will format the index, so this is just an example. You can do an index system where it's alphabetical by subject, and let's say you frequently do "quotations" and "New York". These would be two subjects in your index, and after each subject you note page numbers where you referenced those subjects. Use your margins to help set up references like crazy (i.e. the quote's in the main body, the location is in the margin.) If you're interested in how I index as an example I'd be happy to give you some photos of notebooks in progress.

I have a pretty extensive system set up after years of being frustrated with my ability to organize everything. The number one thing it takes is discipline to follow through - no matter what solution you come up with, simple or complex, it's not going to work if you don't make it a habit. I'm familiar with the "well this was fun organizing everything" rabbit hole that lasts a week. If it's a) not a habit or b) too much time/too complex then it's not going to work. But you have to do it rigorously for around 30 days, and be flexible about adjusting it before you throw in the towel. And one thing that's worked for me is that if I find it annoying to take the 20 seconds to tag/index/organize, it's worth asking if that note is worth keeping in the first place.
posted by barchan at 10:25 AM on August 6, 2014


I live out of my Bullet Journal. It contains both daily todo lists and 'collections' of things I want to remember. Leuchtturm is basically designed for Bullet Journal.
posted by nerdfish at 10:43 AM on August 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

For searchable, taggable text notes I cannot evangelize Notational Velocity enough. You can sync it with Simplenote and an Android clone to make it web and device accessible.
posted by tapir-whorf at 11:49 AM on August 6, 2014

Two pieces of really old advice. One about analog methods: I enjoyed Merlin Mann's Hipster PDA. It's got a lot of flexibility and that totally minimalist design you mentioned wanting. Also, if you haven't already read Getting Things Done, it is worth a trip to the library. The author makes the very good point that it isn't the particular tool that makes planning work, it is the whole process. If you can't do it with a piece of software, then you can't do it with a piece of paper. Once you know how, you can do it with any combination of tools. That idea has helped me a great deal in similar situations.
posted by seasparrow at 3:10 PM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's a slightly different answer, but you can easily build a recipe for If This Then That to automatically move notes to a particular place. For example, my Twitter favourites go into a spreadsheet in Google Drive. Any attachment to an email goes to a folder in GD. Any photo I take and add to a particular album gets added to a different folder. That has let me keep everything in Drive but not worry about remembering all the things I want to add there.

Anyway, look into it - it might help you make this process easier.

And I immediately thought of Livescribe as an answer for you too. That's a great solution, but I didn't take to it personally. I prefer my moleskine + Drive + IFTTT.

Good question!
posted by guster4lovers at 4:10 PM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

@ barchan: The Livescribe pen is a intriguing tool but the only problem is... I can't read my handwriting 100% and I'd need special dot paper for it. I'm still waiting for researchers to improve handwriting recognition and have it converted to Calibri or Arial for notes. I can think of many new uses for it but the tech isn't as well-developed as I'd like it to be.

I'm not against a tagging system but what I'm concerned I'd end up with too many minuscule tags. I'm familiar with it from blogs, LJ, and tumblr but there are times where I end up on reading someone's tag list with over 50+ tags each with anywhere from 200 posts to only 2 posts in each. Thanks, I'll send you a PM to ask about your notebooks.

@ nerdfish: Bullet Journal does look interesting but I don't know if I'm dense but I'm having a hard time following the author's explanations. It could be a side effect of the site navigation too.

@ tapir-whorf: Um, while I appreciate the suggestion but I don't have a iOS. Right now I have a Win7 PC and a Nexus 7 (2012). The Macbook Air looks very nice but sadly I don't think I can think of a reason to switch other than it's shiny =(

@ seasparrow: Thanks, I almost forgot to add that I like reading organization blogs/books too. I have heard about GTD book but mostly from LH (before it went all spammy).

@ guster4lovers: I remember that when it was featured on Mefi. I could never find a exact use for it though. I'd been thinking of ways to implement it with Pocket, Evernote, or Dropbox. I'll check it out again.
posted by chrono_rabbit at 5:33 PM on August 6, 2014

I evernote things I want to save into a notebook called Commonplace, then tag them by type (photography, essay, poem) and sometimes add tags for topics like grief, adoption etc. A topic has occasionally grown big enough to get its own notebook for searching - strokes and Jane Austen, where I just selected the matches and made a new notebook. I don't bother reformatting at all, just clip and save.

The advantage is that I can and do take photos of notes and printed material with my phone camera to save directly into Evernote for that purpose. I carry postit notes and a pen, rather than a notebook.

This year, I plan on printing my absolute favourites from that 1000+ item notebook into a tiny book through Blurb, just for me to keep. I've been poking at the pile to tag what I want to print.

I would guess you're spending time reformatting. Don't bother if you're searching only. I clean up and label and tag only for shared folders so that the other people can easily find data, but if it's just for my reference, a big pile that's indexed is faster and easier to use.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:00 PM on August 6, 2014

Sometimes I find that I want to recall a specific info or quote and I can't remember where I wrote it down. Is in my paper notebook? Word? GDrive? Mefi favorites? Bookmarks?

Set up IFTTT recipes that send everything to Evernote. Use a scanner app to scan your paper notebook to Evernote. Send an RSS of your Mefi favorites to Evernote. Send starred items from your RSS feed to Evernote. Send favorited tweets to Evernote. Instead of bookmarking, clip to Evernote.

I know it seems clunky (for years, I could not understand all the hype). I still think it's a terrible tool for just taking notes. But read this. That's how it becomes useful: dump lots of stuff into it.
posted by rensar at 9:15 AM on August 7, 2014

Just wanted to second Nerdfish's suggestion for Bullet Journal. It's quick, easy to understand, and doesn't require a special notebook. (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Franklin Covey. $15 for diary refills?)

Bullet Journal is good because it breaks things into 3 groups (things to know, things to do, and things that will/did occur), and you sort them by date & page number. Easy enough to set up in 5 minutes. Simple enough to apply consistently and regularly until you get the new practice established.
posted by Tara-dactyl at 5:15 AM on August 8, 2014

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