Updated on 03.21.10

A Look at My “Idea Notebook”

Trent Hamm

As I’ve mentioned several times over the years, I carry a pocket notebook and a pen with me wherever I go. Whenever I have any sort of an idea or discover any piece of information I might want to use or reflect on later, I don’t hesitate to pull out that notebook and jot it down.

I can’t even tell you the number of times this notebook has really come in handy in my life. It’s been a life saver for keeping ideas for The Simple Dollar, recording gift ideas, jotting down books I might want to read later, noting some contact information, writing down some sale prices… the list goes on and on. In fact, I once made a list of ways a pocket notebook can save you money.

Although I’ve discussed the notebook in several different contexts before, I’ve never really explained how I do it in detail. So here goes.

I simply keep a small pocket notebook in my pocket at all times. Most of the time, I use one of those small Mead notebooks with the spiral at the top. Sometimes, family members or friends will get me a small Moleskine notebook (or something similar) and I’ll use that – I certainly like it better, but when you’re comparing a notebook I can get for a quarter versus one that will cost several dollars (and considering I’ll blow through it in a month), there is no real comparison.

I also keep a reliable pen in my pocket. I prefer my long-used space pen, which has never failed on me or leaked in my pocket. I received it for a gift, so I wouldn’t encourage someone to run out and spend $30-40 on a pen, but I will say it’s the best pen I’ve ever used.

It’s a bad idea to try to keep bits of information in your head. Whenever I discover a new idea or a new piece of information, I attempt to get it written down in that notebook as quickly as possible. If I try to keep it in my head, two things happen. First, I spend some of my brain power trying to keep that piece of information in my memory, meaning my focus on other things is less. Second, I sometimes still forget that piece of information.

I write ideas and information down as soon as possible. As soon as I discover something worth recalling later, I jot it down. I’ll even pull out the notebook during conversations if need be, telling the other person that they’ve just given me a great idea (they usually view that as a compliment).

I don’t organize these jottings at all. I don’t worry about organization of the stuff I jot down. I just get it down on paper as quickly as possible.

I separate jottings with a slash or a page break. When I finish an idea, I put a big slash underneath it. Then, the next time I open my notebook, I start the next idea under that slash – if there’s room. If not, I just flip to the next page.

Once a day – or more often – I review all of the jottings and deal with them. I usually do this at my computer. I’ll transfer dates to my calendar. I’ll transfer contact information to my address book. I’ll look up information if need be. I’ll add things to my to-do list.

If a jotting is dealt with, I cross it out. As soon as I’ve dealt with a piece of information, putting it in its appropriate place, I cross out that jotting in my notebook. It has now served its purpose, and crossing it out makes it easier to find the jottings that I haven’t yet processed.

If all jottings on a page are dealt with, I tear out the page. Again, this gives me fewer pages to deal with later on. Most of the time, I only need to open my notebook and leaf through a page or two to find the next blank page. If I’m using a nice notebook, like a Moleskine, I’ll use the bookmark string to hold my place instead of tearing out pages.

The end result of all of this? I get ideas out of my head as fast as possible. The system I use is very reliable, too – I tried using electronic solutions for this, but if a battery went too low, I was simply out of luck. Not a problem with pen and paper.

This notebook saves me money and helps me earn more on a daily basis. What more can you ask for?

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  1. et says:

    Trent – I’ve used a variation on this idea at work and it’s gained me a reputation for really being on top of things. I keep a legal or steno pad on my desk. Every morning I write in the full date at the far left margin. As ideas occur, people call or stop by my desk, anything that I might need to deal with or remember or is pertinent gets jotted on the page. That clears my mind to go on to the next thing, as I can review the notes when time allows, transferring items to the calendar, calling people back, writing up a note to a file, etc., plus it gives me a reference (since I don’t discard the full pages) down the road when some bit of info needs to be retrieved. I do usually have a small notebook in my purse too, but don’t use it as regularly as you seem to, though it is handy in some of the most random of situations!

  2. Debbie M says:

    I love having one of these notebooks, too. Looking through my latest one, see notes on:
    * books I’m reading
    * dance class
    * suggested books, movies, etc. from friends
    * tours and other stuff I do on vacation
    * recipes from magazines at the dentist office
    * notes on measurements taken at the doctor office (blood pressure, etc.) plus other things I want to remember–and questions I want to remember to ask

    The other day I locked myself out of my house with nothing but my wallet (I leave my notebook in my purse) when I followed the tamale lady to her car and the wind closed the door behind me, and I had a few hours before meeting my friends (including my roommate) for a walk, so I went to the library, and it was not so easy to remember the ideas I got from magazines there!

  3. Maureen says:

    An excellent idea. I shall jot it down! :)

  4. Lisa @ Cents To save says:

    I love my little spiral Mead notebook. I tend to be a random thinker with a busy mind, and writing down ideas, recent pruchases, things to do so I don’t forget has really uncomplicated my life.

    I don;t go anywhere with out it!

  5. Rebecca says:

    I just use my phone, which has a notebook feature and I can leave myself notes, lists anything. Super easy to reference and one less thing to tote around, as when I am not carrying an enormous diaper bag for 3 kids, I like a very litte purse.

  6. At work I get at least 10 people a day telling my little bits of important information. I listen and if I can’t solve it in the moment I tell them to write it down on a piece of paper and put it in my box so I can look at it later. They are learning that I don’t remember much right after the conversation is finished.
    I use to carry a notebook and write these things down but what I learn was that if it was REALLY important to them the person would write me a note, if not they wouldn’t.
    When I have a quite moment in the day I take my stack of notes and do what ever needs to be done!

  7. Laura says:

    I carry a notebook in my purse for all the purposes you described. One additional thing I do is whenever one of my children says something profound or makes me laugh, I write it down. It’s so fun to look back at some of the things my now freshman said when he was 4. There’s no way I’d ever remember what was said even from the timespan of when it occurs to when I get home to the computer to log it.

  8. MelodyO says:

    I’m writing a novel, and I can’t count the times I’ve lost plot ideas because I couldn’t write them down before I forgot them. OTOH, there have been plenty of notes I’ve jotted down that, when read a week or two later, make absolutely no sense. So…details are your friend.

  9. MelodyO says:

    Laura, I’ve also kept track of all the funny/important things my kids have said and done since they were babies (they’re 11 and 15 now), and those notebooks are more important to us than even their baby photos. In the event of a fire, that’s what I’d carry out with me. I’d love to trade kid stories with you!

  10. SLCCOM says:

    On getting locked out: figure out a way to put keys out in such a way that a bad person can’t use them. For instance, if you have a garage with a keypad, put one key in there somewhere. (Not the key to the door to the house!) Then put another key under the mat or someplace else for the other lock. The bad person won’t know which key works for which lock or where to find them.

    Or, as I did one place I lived, ask a neighbor for permission to put YOUR house keys under their door mat.

  11. Tom says:

    Trent, Space Pens are like $10. The one you linked to looked like some kind of special chrome version. Look at all the related products on that page; they’re all 10-12 dollars.

  12. Deborah says:

    One of the most important things I ever learned was in a Priority Management class. If you write things down in a place your brain trusts, your brain won’t wake you up or otherwise interrupt you with cycling ideas… To this day I use my little notebook for those ideas, love the Moleskines but I don’t go through one a month and I love to sketch in mine as well so the Moleskine is really nice for that.

  13. Debbie says:

    Excellent idea!

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