Novice notetaker: Maybe I need a small 3-ring binder?
September 23, 2021 9:15 PM   Subscribe

I take pen-and-paper notes for work. For the past couple of years a 150 page notebook has held all my notes. As it’s nearly full, I wonder if something different might better suit my workflow... details follow.

My notebook has done alright but I think I would be happier if I could insert and remove pages at my discretion. Some notes I type up, print out, and stuff among the pages. The shelf life of my notes varies widely. I have reminders that expire in a day next to notes I refer to four years later! Yet I like that my notebook doesn’t impose any structure on my writing. I’m not looking for a planner or a todo list. I just want a something that lets me include a diagram I printed out next to my notes about the ground truth. All that is to say: should I be looking at small 3-ring binders? Is there another type of notebook that would suit me? I don’t know what’s out there. I just know that I want a sturdy solution that’s roughly half-letter sized.
posted by Monochrome to Shopping (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I love compendiums for this sort of ad-hoc note taking. They look a lot more sophisticated than what you'd otherwise use in schools, and there's room to store printouts and the like before you file them. I use them a lot when running role-play games, I take notes and store printouts and the like. Even room for a pen!
posted by Jilder at 9:20 PM on September 23, 2021

I've used disk binding systems like Levenger Circa and Staples Arc in the past. They look very similar to spiral bound notebooks, but you can add and remove pages at will. The companies are more than glad to sell you specially punched dividers, card holders, paper with very specific grids on them, pretty covers etc. but if you want to print your own, you have to get a corresponding punch.

Fundamentally they aren't different than three ring binders, except that every three ring binder I've owned eventually breaks. There is a lot less to break with disk binding systems other than the paper, and you should use slightly thicker paper stock to compensate.
posted by meowzilla at 10:12 PM on September 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have a disk binding system and it is a good way to have the pages fall out. Even better way to have the pages fall out than 3 holes, they've already been pre de-holed. Not good if you don't like finicky.
posted by aniola at 10:43 PM on September 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have heard good things about refillable notebooks from Kokuyo/Lihit Lab. The capacity in these notebooks is ~60 sheets. The A5 size is slightly wider than half-letter size.
posted by typify at 11:07 PM on September 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

I am a notebook and pen person, for both work and personal projects. I bought a Remarkable in January and it was honestly life changing. It was a pricey purchase but nine months later, I can absolutely say it was worth it. I have all of my notes as well as pdf scans saved in labeled folders on it that allow me to reference things easily, erase or delete things that I no longer need, and stay organized in a way that paper never let me do. I have found that it actually makes my note taking better because I will write more down in the moment knowing I can go back and erase or move things easily. The remarkable is a little bigger than half letter size, but it’s thin and light and I probably have around a thousand pages of stuff in it. It’s a very different solution than a binder or paper notebook, but you may want to check out some videos or reviews of the Remarkable to see if it could work for you.
posted by August Fury at 2:53 AM on September 24, 2021 [5 favorites]

I also came in to recommend Remarkable. It's expensive and really only good for one thing, but, if you're a handwritten notes person, it really is great. I've had mine for a little less than a year as well and I can't imagine going back to a paper system.

Pros: I take between 10 and 30 pages of notes a day, across a couple dozen projects/topics, and I now know where all my notes are and can easily go back to refer to notes from a specific meeting without having to do any filing. If you wind up mixing topics in one file, you can extract pages into a new file easily. My desk (really, dining room table) is also much tidier since I don't have 2-3 notebooks and a million scraps of paper with little notes and reminders everywhere. It syncs to the cloud so you can also look at your notes on your phone/tablet (it's usually good about auto-syncing but I've found I've had to do it manually a couple times). You can also email pdfs of any of your files.

Cons: Its OCR is complete garbage -- my handwriting isn't perfect but it's better than average and I get total gibberish when I try to convert my notes to type, so I wouldn't rely on it for that.
posted by snaw at 3:26 AM on September 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

I used to have a set of 5.5 x 8.5 3-ring binders that I dedicated to project per book. They were ok, but binders are still binders, and they could break and I was always worried I'd have a hard time replacing them. The 5.5 size is also really quite narrow, and I'd go for A5 if I was going to start using that system again. Using a system with broad use also opens up tons of options for refill paper styles, pockets, zipped pouches, etc.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 3:37 AM on September 24, 2021

I've always used a clipboard for this and I love it. You can slide pages in and out, keep things as long as you want, etc. Bonus is you can color code pages, which I've done to great effect.

Get one with a strong clip and dropping it won't be a problem. I'd worry about losing the order if everything came out, but that's pretty unusual; I don't think it ever happened to me.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:00 AM on September 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm 41 and still use a threering binder-based approach to everything I need to keep hardcopy. It's deeply satisfying in a way I have a hard time explaining other than I went to a nerdy high school in the 90s and old habits die hard. Until this year, all my daily/running notes were taken in Clairefontaine notebooks that are also three-hole punched, so they nest neatly within the same binders.

I also jumped on Remarkable this year. I've been using it daily since March. It's pretty handy as an organizational tool, and I second everything snaw said above. I do an enormous amount of document reading and markup, so being able to do that on a writing tablet that also omits the distractions of email/internet stuff is phenomenal. For three days of the week I have a routine of starting my work day with two uninterrupted hours of that kind of read and markup work, and separating myself from a laptop to do this--just wandering wherever is comfortable with my tablet--has been a joy. I would be remiss to add that the writing experience on the thing is pretty wonderful. It's this sort of textured glass that gets quite close to the friction and feeling of writing on paper.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:36 AM on September 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Kokuyo-style notebooks are great, but you could also try a Filofax-type 6 ring binder in case you find it more comfortable to hold.

I would try with an A5 "clipbook" because they are relatively cheap and their refills are compatible with the more upscale binders. Filofax-compatible A5 refills are also easy to find in Amazon or Aliexpress, and, of course, you can make holes on the short side of an A4 paper sheet, fold it in half and cut the paper that overhangs the holes so you can print and store info in the binder.
posted by sukeban at 8:04 AM on September 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

I use an A5 binder with 20 rings, along with some divider tabs and a lot of sticky notes as my main notebook for pen and paper. Some longterm notes I've shifted out to thinner A5 binders with clear covers so I can easily see the front page. It was cheap and it's easy to get refills online so I feel no compunction about writing lots of messy notes if I want to or moving them about.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:20 AM on September 24, 2021

You can always use a notebook, and tear out the pages for filing later. I use notepads with detachable pages, then scan them into OneNote for storage later, but you can also put them in binders or folders. I used to use a ring bound system with detachable pages, but they stopped making my preferred graph paper, and I realized I was only ever looking at the top pages.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 10:13 AM on September 24, 2021

This is maybe too simple, but you say you stuff things in your notebook - do you ever tape them in? You can trim margins to make things fit / have fold outs / shrink things with a copier. I typically prefer to tape over blank pages vs. covering things, but whatever works. If you fill up a notebook, you can cut out the bits you still need (or scan and print) and add to the next one. I also like notebooks with a pocket for receipts and other paper bits with short-term usefulness, you can cut one out of a file folder and glue/tape it inside the cover if there's not one premade.

I'm fairly terrible at keeping an index in my notebooks, but that's also a common solution for this sort of thing.

I feel like a half-letter size binder loses too much space to the rings, YMMV.
posted by momus_window at 4:27 PM on September 24, 2021

If you're a paper person, I have really liked the disk-based notebooks like the Staples Arc and Levenger Circa mentioned above--it is MUCH easier/aster to insert and remove pages than with a regular 3-ring notebook, but they still hold the papers well.

You will need a specialty punch in order to put in extra things like printed-out diagrams or photos, but you'd need a hole punch to do that with a regular notebook anyway.

I personally don't like the folders with pockets because I, um, tend to stuff the pockets full of things and then can't find anything.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 5:17 PM on September 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

I use a Freitag Agenda as a notebook. It's great for adding / removing pages. The only "issue" is that it uses a proprietary size of paper. However, that's not a big deal if you have a Kinkos type place near you. Just get them to cut you 500 or a 1000 sheets or whatever and you'll be set for years.

If you're in North America, Staples markets the "hole punch" system used in the Agenda as Arc. In fact, you could just buy one of their binders that use that system for much cheaper. Same idea, just not as attractive.

See the Freitag in action here.
posted by dobbs at 8:19 PM on September 24, 2021

Regarding the Remarkable -- I would wait before buying one. V2 has been out more than a year, and though the company has not announced a V3, they got a lot of flack from owners of V1 for not offering an upgrade path and they ain't cheap.

I have resisted buying one until they support Bluetooth keyboards -- again, they haven't said they ever would, but without that feature, it would much less useful to me. I do have a Boox Nova, though, which many people prefer over the Remarkable, and it does support Bluetooth keyboards.
posted by dobbs at 8:31 PM on September 24, 2021

Response by poster: These are great suggestions, everyone, thanks! So now I'm leaning toward a compendium (reminds me of a Trapper Keeper, haha) or learning more about a disk-bound system. I have tried tearing out pages and taping in printouts, but I don't like it. It's messy and when the pages have taped-in parts they're bulky and make it more difficult to flip through. For various reasons I'm definitely sticking with a pen and paper system. The Remarkable tablet is not for me, but I'm glad it's an option for people who are interested in that.
posted by Monochrome at 10:01 AM on September 25, 2021

All the binder variants I’ve carried around eventually dropped pages - I guess I’m hard on them. So I stick with sewn notebooks for that. But the nicest ones have bindings designed to stretch when you fasten extra pages in - they’re lab notebooks and crazy sturdy, and come in A4, A5, letter, etc.
posted by clew at 1:25 PM on September 25, 2021

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