Teach me to use a notebook
April 19, 2006 5:27 AM   Subscribe

Please teach me how to use a notebook. Yes, the paper kind. I've tried to go paperless, but I find that there are too many constraints to taking notes on a computer. I like the advantages of using a notebook: freedom, doodling, portable, easy to page-through and review. Ideas just flow when I use paper and a pen. I find that I don't review notes kept on my computer. With a notebook, I can page through a find ideas and thoughts from last month. With that said, I have a hard time sticking with using the notebook.

Eventually my notebooks feels disorganized. I sometimes have a difficult time finding information. I have a notebook sitting on my desk that I'm afraid to open because it feels like a mess.

When I do use a notebook, I use one for everything. Personal ideas, business strategies, grocery lists, phone numbers, goals, etc., etc.

So how do you use a notebook? Do you have more than one: business and personal? Do you 'archive' ideas on your computer? Is your notebook lined or unlined? Any tips would be appreciated.

(And yes, I know about the fine moleskin and other premium notebooks. I just need help using them.) Thanks.
posted by jpep to Technology (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I put new topics in all caps to make sort of a heading and generally keep one idea to a page or at least separate ideas by a thick line. (I have a notebook with small pages.) You could take this further by separating the notebook into sections (maybe stick post-its on the sides or tops of the pages for easy flipping among sections). You could also just use the post-its to highlight standing lists or important ideas.

When there's something you're done with, like a grocery list, fold down the page or even rip it out.

Dating the pages might help, cause you might have a general idea of when you wrote down what you're looking for and therefore know where it should be.

A thin notebook might help, too, depending on how long it takes for you to feel like your notes have gotten out of control.
posted by Airhen at 5:42 AM on April 19, 2006

I use one notebook; I'm a graduate student writing her MA thesis, I attend lecture for me, I attend lecture for the class I TA for, and I TA. All that goes into one notebook - not a nice one, just a top-spiral bound one with three-hole-punching on the side.

About once a week, sometimes more if I have a big project going on, all the notes go from The Notebook into Some Folders or A Few Binders. Individual pages get sorted then. You might want to do it nightly instead, if necessary.

The one thing to remember is not to put more than one type of info on a page. (And if I have to borrow paper from people, I can always folder it later, and not have to worry about it falling out of The Notebook.)

Alternately, try getting some sort of planner with tabs, and force yourself to use the tabs for different sorts of information.
posted by cobaltnine at 5:47 AM on April 19, 2006

I put a date and a tag on the upper-right corner of each page. It helps me find information easier.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:04 AM on April 19, 2006

I found this thread helpful when I was setting up a new notebook - maybe you will too? Granted, the whole "well-organized" thing seems to be kind of at odds with how I use my notebooks, but it started out great.
posted by ferociouskitty at 6:23 AM on April 19, 2006

I use a cheap-o sprial bound one. Everyday, I start a header on a new page with the date. Sometimes days will take up more than one page. I have my own little system of identifying different bits of information. Things I need to get done today, I'll put a star next to & cross off what I accomplish. I'll divide the page with lines, circle ideas, underline events, use sticky tabs on pages I'd like to use as quick reference, etc. etc. Highlighters work well too. I also keep the back section full of things I use often - like passwords and ids for websites, a list of albums I need to buy, and other reference-type stuff.

Don't worry about it feeling disorganized. Mine would look like the ramblings of an insane person to anyone that would happen upon it. The important thing is that I know where things are, and if everything's dated, it's sort-of in order. Don't be afraid to geek out at the office supply store and stock up on tab dividers, highlighters, post-it flags & other tools that might help you. A pocketed notebook is always useful too - you can keep reciepts, mail, etc. in that. Have fun!
posted by Alpenglow at 6:31 AM on April 19, 2006

I have multiple Moleskine pocket books. I use one for each major project I'm working on. On the covers, I use a silver or white pen to distinguish which project the book is for. I also have a generic/scrap notebook for when I'm working on multiple projects at the same time or no projects at all.

When using the notebook to document the idea displayed on the cover, I use it front to back. When putting anything in the notebook that does not have to do with the idea (phone number of someone I run into, name of a book to remember, whatever), I write from the back page to the front.

I always carry one notebook with me. When I don't know which mood I'm going to be in (and therefore which project I'm working on), I carry the scrap book.

At the end of each week, I transfer the scrap ideas to their respective notebooks.
posted by dobbs at 6:34 AM on April 19, 2006

The engineer in me prefers three-ring binders to notebooks for organizational purposes. If you insist on a notebook, then, like others have said, get on with three holes. That way the pages can be transferred to a binder or even a folder later.

I typically have one binder for everything work related, and file the pages out into the appropriate project every once in a while. Now that I'm in grad school, too, I have a binder for each class I take as well.
posted by LouMac at 6:59 AM on April 19, 2006

I use one spiral-bound 5-subject notebook at work, folded open to the right-hand page. The page is marked with the date I start the page. Down the left side of this page I write anything that needs to be done, preceded by a checkbox. The checkbox gets one line through it if I've done what I need to but am waiting for someone else to complete their part of the task. The box gets an X when the task is complete.

Down the right side of this page goes any work-related information I need to remember. This page stays open until it is full. Usually by this point only one or two items remain unchecked, so I start a new page with a new date on top and transfer the unfinished items to the new page.

If a topic (meeting, project) needs a whole page to itself, I go to the next blank page and write a topic header on the page. If it's a page I expect to return to frequently, it gets a sticky note as a tab.

Personal items that come up during work (phone numbers, travel research, ideas) go on the left-hand page (the one that's facing the desk).

The only problem with this system is that I don't carry the (large) notebook with me when I leave work - it's daytime-only.

And unlined pages, definitely.
posted by hsoltz at 7:23 AM on April 19, 2006

You might want to check out this, an interesting take on a make-it-yourself general organizer
posted by Yavsy at 8:17 AM on April 19, 2006

i have a system a bit like dobbs'.

i have one notebook in my briefcase and one in my carry-on suitcase and a very small spiral pad that i transfer from handbag to handbag. at home, i have various diaries sorted by topic (cases; academics; personal diary #1; personal diary #2; daily memoranda; vacation #1; vacation #2 &c). i just write down stuff as it occurs to me in the carry-around notebooks and then transfer it to the topic-specific notebook regularly. sometimes this means copying things; sometimes it amounts to redrafting; sometimes it's scissors-and-glue.

i ran through a half-dozen systems before i found one that worked for me. carrying around different pens and different notebooks was too much for me. coming up with codes or headings was not helpful either. i just jot things down and later move them to where they need to be. if i don't have a notebook with me (say in court), i jot things down and slip them into the notebook. i have a binder clip on the back cover for the loose pages and one on the front to clip together all the pages that are transcribed; i leave the rest loose for writing. if it's a list i'll need to keep coming back to, i start at the back because the front is clipped together. sometimes i skip pages to leave room if there's more to that thought.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:24 AM on April 19, 2006

I use one notebook for everything in my life: calendars, to-do lists, notes, sketches, business ideas etc. After much trial and error I have decided that I need a few specific things in a notebook.

1. Spiral Bound: the notebook should lay flat when I'm copying things from it and I should be able to rip out pages and not ruin the notebook.

2. Grid ruled paper: makes it easy to do architectural sketches that I will use in real life, drawing in a monthly calendar is a breeze and I have an easy time writing neat checklists. Plus, I can write sideways on a page if I want to.

3. Color-coded sections: I can categorize and find things more easily

4. Page title box: does wonders for finding the page I want.

The one brand of notebook that I have found the most useful is Miquelrius. They make notebooks that thick enough so that they last me for months. They come in a variety of sizes, but I prefer the 6.5" by 8.25" ones.

I've also had problems in the past with not reviewing my notes. I tend to enjoy looking at my notes if they are interesting to look at. First, I try to use at least two ink colors, usually back and red. This makes it easier to go back and correct notes and highlight things. Additionally, it makes my notes more interesting visually.

Secondly, I keep a little envelope of interesting pictures I ripped out of magazines and amusing cartoons from my desk calendar. When I get a few free moments I will glue pictures into the bare spots. I have an easier time remembering things if I have a picture associated with them, and pretty pictures make a good excuse to flip through my notebook.

Also, I cut crossword puzzles out of the newspaper and glue them to the last few pages of my notebook. This has nothing to do with organization, but it makes my bus commute a little less boring.

Upthread a few people have also mentioned post-it notes. I keep a few pages covered with blank ones in case I need to mark something or need a reminder. It beats carrying the whole pad around.
posted by Alison at 8:30 AM on April 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in the pigpogPDA method.

I've been leery (indeed, incredulous) at the thought of using notebooks/index cards for anything but capture. With many paper systems it seems like managing the paper (writing and rewriting or printing and reprinting, sorting and arranging) becomes its own major project.

The pigpogPDA looks simple and flexible. It offers a few tricks help you capture and process efficiently along with ways to quickly find what you're working on, which may make keeping paper lists viable.
posted by sudama at 8:37 AM on April 19, 2006

For general stuff, I stick with a quad ruled moleskine with the a system quite similar to this Lifehacker article entitled "Take Great Notes". If you're looking to figure out how to effectively take notes, read this. It's good.

Alison mentioned Miquelrius, and for semi-specialized notebooks, they're super-keen. I have a set of Miquelrius lab notebooks (the "notebook 4 spot" in their horrible website) that I use to take programming notes & sketch out UI designs. Insofar as I can love a notebook, I love that notebook.

Things I do:
A page of my tasks gets paperclipped or dog eared while there's still things to do, and then folded in half when the list is done.

I have a few different notebooks of differing types. The moleskine is in my pocket most of the time. I use it for jotting things down. The lab notebook is for programming brainstorming and sketching. There's my plain blue notebook, used for more extensive programming notes. Things will get copied from the moleskine to one of the others when needed.
posted by boo_radley at 8:52 AM on April 19, 2006

Oh, and here's an expansion on the cornell method.
posted by boo_radley at 8:58 AM on April 19, 2006

I am a big, big fan of old fashioned stenographer's pads. They are more portable than full sized notebooks, but the pages are still big enough to pack a lot of information on them. And for some reason, the spiral binding doesn't get crushed as easily as it does with letter sized notebooks. I store a pen in the spiral binding.

At work, I use a different pad for each project I'm working on, and I use it for everything--taking notes at meetings (which always have to be typed up anyway), questions from support groups, etc. When the project is over, these notebooks go in the project file.

For personal use (for school), I make the steno do double duty. II write lecture notes on one side of the page. For research and notes on class readings, I flip the book over and write notes on the other side. If the book ever starts getting full, I don't get confused because one side of notes will be upside down and I know that belongs to a different topic.

I always write the date on the top of the page, and I use wide Post it tabs to mark important stuff--either something that I'm still working on or something that I need to find easily again. The wide tabs have enough space to note what it is I'm actually marking.
posted by luneray at 9:54 AM on April 19, 2006

I was trying to manage everything using software and it wasn't working for me so I went back to paper a few months ago.

I got a cheap Avery 8.5x5.5 binder ($5 at Office Depot), a ream of 24lb paper ($5) - cut in half ($1) and then printed my own planner/organizer using DIYPlanner.

I use 1 Action page per day (more as needed) for my daily to-dos, incomplete items get copied to the next day. Project sheets keep track of my, well, projects, Calendar pages allow me to jot appointments down (I mainly use 30boxes these days). I also have a separate "Home" section at the back for personal to-dos and projects. There are many other templates including pages for Notes, Goals, Finances, etc.

It's worked tremendously well for me. I love that it's cheap, infinitely refillable and infinitely customizable - if I had the time I might make some modified templates but the main pack at DIYPlanner is more than sufficient for now.
posted by aceyprime at 10:06 AM on April 19, 2006

Have you ever tried Circa?
posted by radioamy at 10:15 AM on April 19, 2006

My handy hint for notebooks is to draw a box in the margin when I have a to-do action, and check the box when it's done. The box makes it easy to spot undone stuff.

Using one single spiral-bound 8x11 100 page notebook for everyting works best for me, and I'm looking forward to trying all the great ideas above.
posted by anadem at 12:19 PM on April 19, 2006

I'm another person that prefers 5 subject notebooks.
I prefer college ruled and with a stiff backing.
posted by moonshine at 4:45 PM on April 19, 2006

Maybe you should keep an index notebook? Or just clear out the first 5 or so pages of the notebook you're using for an index listing (with page numbers and/or dates) of every ALL CAPS subject heading/description you use. Every time you start a new section, write that all caps heading down in the index. This way, you only have to sort through five pages to find what you were looking for. We can't all have eidetic memories and always remember where we wrote stuff down. Even me. Though sometimes I enjoy a leisurely stroll through my notebooks, and rechecking them frequently keeps my ideas connected.

I attend Cornell and have never been taught this method. =(
posted by Eideteker at 7:27 AM on April 21, 2006

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