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How to Use a Simple Pocket Notebook to Change Your Life
A few days ago, in Monday’s Reader Mailbag, I made an off-hand reference to my own use of pocket notebooks, where I wrote a paragraph or two about how I used them and suggested that if readers wanted to know more, they should send me a note and I’d write a longer article. I received a hefty stack of requests for this – Facebook wall posts, Facebook messages, and emails – so here’s the article that so many of you requested.
It’s really hard to believe, but I have to say that one of the most – and possibly the most – profound changes I’ve made in my life over the last several years was the simple decision to start carrying a pocket notebook and a pen with me wherever I go. Unless I’ve made a mental miscue when swapping out a finished notebook or something, I do not leave the house without my pocket notebook resting in my hip pocket or my shirt pocket, with a trusty pen right there beside it for jotting notes.
The Benefits of a Pocket Notebook
Why has this been such a profound switch for me? Simply put, it’s helped me in every single aspect of my life.
I don’t forget names or phone numbers or other contact information. Sure, I can put that information into my smartphone, but this ensures that I’ll always be able to do it, even if my smartphone is out of battery life. This also lets me add specific notes about the person right after their contact information so that I know why I jotted it down rather than just tossing a number into my phone without any context.
If I discover a task that I need to do, it’s immediately saved so I don’t forget about it. I don’t have to try to hold it in my head and hope that I remember it later. I just pull out my notebook anywhere and jot it down.
When I have a fleeting idea, I don’t lose it or have to work extra hard to remember it. Sometimes, I’ll have a great idea for an article for The Simple Dollar or hear a great idea on a podcast or on the radio. A note in my pocket notebook enables me to remember it so that I can investigate it further when the time is more convenient.
I don’t get distracted nearly as much by those fleeting ideas, either. When these ideas pop into my head, I either have to try to hold them in my head for a while until I have an opportunity to do something with them, which distracts me from whatever I’m doing, or I have to let them go. A pocket notebook solves this dilemma, as I can just write down that idea immediately and move back to the task at hand without that thought distracting me or without having to lose it.
I’m much better at learning things, both when I plan to or when an opportunity for learning pops up unexpectedly. Through using my pocket notebook for taking notes during classes, lectures, and so forth, I’ve landed upon a very good strategy that really works well for absorbing and processing the new things that I learn. I’ll explain that in detail in a bit, but the pocket notebook was key.
My “brainstorming” is much more effective than ever before. Not only can I brainstorm almost anywhere that I’m at, the results of that brainstorm are already part of a trusted system, so I can pick up the results of that brainstorm at a later date and actually do something with it.
These things – and many others – have contributed greatly to the quality of my personal, professional, and spiritual life.
Before I get into the details of how I actually use my pocket notebook, let’s talk about what I use.
What Kind of Pocket Notebook?
First, it’s bound with staples rather than a metal spiral. I used to use generic pocket notebooks, which were bound either at the top or sides with a metal spiral. It didn’t take me long to see the problems with that binding, as the metal spiral felt uncomfortable in my pocket and, with much wear, the notebooks kind of fell apart. The metal spiral would often poke me in the leg, the pages would start to fall out, and if I got even a drop of moisture in there, it turned into a disaster. They just didn’t work. The staple binding is essential, as it keeps sharp metal away from my leg and makes the notebook far less bulky.
Second, the paper quality is good. I can write on it clearly and legibly with almost any kind of pen or pencil I can throw at it. There are some differences between editions of Field Notes, but all of them work well with the pens (and sometimes pencils) that I use.
Third, it stands up really well to living in my pocket for a few weeks, no matter what I might be doing. For the most part, Field Notes stand up really well in my pocket. After a day or two, the notebook slightly curves to the contour of my body and you can start to see some cover scuffing shortly thereafter, but the notebooks hold up incredibly well. Even through lots of hiking and all kinds of activity, they don’t fall apart.
Finally, they’re available in a graph paper format. I just prefer jotting down thoughts on graph paper. It’s easier for me to do things like create checkboxes, write horizontally or vertically as needed, and create simple diagrams and pictures as needed.
It doesn’t hurt that I find them very aesthetically pleasing, too.
My only complaint with them is the relative price. Usually, you’ll find a three pack of them – 48 pages each – for $9.99 at MSRP. I can sometimes find them a bit cheaper than that. The problem is that I blow through one of these in about a week. I personally find it worth it, but if I could find a less expensive alternative that had the same features, I’d use it. (Most other notebooks that are similar are either the same price or have some sort of significant flaw.)
What about page size? When I first tried pocket notebooks, I was really apprehensive about page size. How would it handle large blocks of notes? I’ve found that this has never been an issue. I’ve never ran out of space for anything other than one or two very large drawings, and those were mostly due to starting a drawing without any organization in mind. The additional size of a larger notebook is far more of a drawback than the relative small page size of a pocket notebook.
What Kind of Pen?
I really have three requirements for my pocket pen.
One, it must write with a very high level of reliability on the pocket notebooks that I use. “Dud” pens aren’t acceptable, nor are pens that sometimes choose to write only at a certain angle. These pens need to be faithful and reliable, always writing when I pull one out to jot down a note.
Two, it must not leave excessive ink on the paper. If the pen leaves behind big blots of ink during normal writing, then that ink is going to smudge all over the place and make the things I’ve written become completely illegible. That’s not acceptable.
Three, it must never leak in my pocket. If a pen leaks in my pocket, I’m done with it immediately. If the same type of pen leaks twice, I’m done with that type of pen. This should never happen.
I prefer pens that write with a finer tip, but that’s a personal preference.
In the end, after trying a lot of pens, my preferred pen is the Uniball Signo 207 Ultra Micro. These pens are a home run for each of the above criteria and can be bought in bulk for a reasonable price per pen.
How I Use the Pocket Notebook
My process for actually using my pocket notebook is loosely based on the ideas presented in the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. In that book, Allen describes a very robust strategy for keeping track of tasks and pieces of information that one might accumulate. While I do not use Allen’s full system, I do use big parts of it, and my pocket notebook is a key part of that.
“Gathering” simply refers to how I actually use my pocket notebook for taking notes and collecting things.
Everything I might possibly want to think about later is written down in my pocket notebook. If there’s even a chance I might want to reflect on it later, it goes in my pocket notebook. I don’t try to filter in advance – I just put everything in there.
I have no qualms about taking it out almost anywhere; if anyone asks, I tell them that they just told me something important that I want to remember or think about later. I’ve found that, over the years, people actually find this to be a pretty positive thing. People are subtly flattered if you tell them that they just said something important enough to you that you want to write it down to think about it later.
Think about it – what if you were telling someone something and they said, “That’s really interesting! Thanks for telling me! I’m going to jot that down so I can look into it more later!” and then wrote down what you said.
Most things are stored as simple notes, prefaced by a dash. I use a small dash or a dot at the start of each separate note. Most of my collection is just a long series of these notes.
I don’t worry about order or organization within my pocket notebook, as I’ll process all of it later. For the most part, I don’t worry about organizing those ideas at all as I write them down. Most of the material in that book is just a sequence of unrelated notes.
I’ll stick paper scraps right into my notebook with a paper clip – things like receipts and business cards so on. I usually have two paper clips attached to the back cover of the notebook. If I find a piece of paper I want to keep and deal with later, I’ll just stick it into that paper clip.
If I’m going to take longer notes on something, I draw a single line through one of the blank lines as a separator before and after the notes, and I title what the notes are about and where I took them. Let’s say, for example, that I watch a lecture for an online class or that I actually attend an event where there is a speaker. I’ll just make a single line in my notebook, write a title of the class or lecture or book chapter or whatever on the next line, and then start taking notes. When it’s finished, I draw another single line below it. (If I have any stray thoughts during this, I skip a page or two and jot it down, then go back to the notes.)
I keep my pocket notebook in front of me on the desk while I’m working (with a pen beside it). I find that I have a lot of stray ideas while I am working, so having that notebook in the most convenient place possible makes it easy to jot down notes as they come to mind. (Sometimes, I’ll just enter them directly into programs if I already know what to do with them.)
Processing means that I go through my pocket notebook and figure out what to do with all of the little notes I’ve taken.
I process my pocket notebook a couple times a day (unless I’m on vacation or something). I just sit down at my computer, pull out my notebook, and start dealing with the stuff I’ve written down there.
I start at the previous double line. I use a double line as a separator to indicate where I stopped processing my notebook last time. Thus, when I’m ready to process, I go backwards from my most recent note to the previous double line and start there.
I move names and addresses to my address book and social media contacts to appropriate social media accounts. Usually, I have a note there that explains why I should follow up with this person, and if that’s the case, I either follow up immediately or add an entry to my to-do list explaining that I should follow up (which is what I do if the follow-up requires any significant thought).
I recopy notes from classes or from things I’ve learned. This is key, and it’s helped me to process and absorb information far better than I’ve ever done before. Whenever I’m reading a book where I’m trying to learn something, attending a talk, or listening to a course lecture (I take a lot of online classes for personal enrichment), I take notes in my pocket notebook.
Those notes are great for helping me process the information as I’m hearing it, but they don’t do much for helping me to absorb it. I find that the best absorption – meaning that I integrate the ideas into my thinking and interpretation of the world – happens when I recopy those notes.
So, what I usually do is copy them into Evernote. I make a new note in Evernote with the name of the talk and then transfer my notes from my pocket notebook onto the computer within that Evernote note. As I go along, I’ll look up things that I’m unsure of and add those details to my notes.
This process is incredibly helpful for actually learning material. I had no idea how useful this really was, and I truly wish I had known about it when I was in college. It has helped me to really understand lots of different subjects.
I add to-dos to my to-do program. If an item constitutes a task I need to take care of, I either do it immediately or I add it to my to-do program of choice, Todoist. (During the day, I usually just follow my to-do list and try to crank through as many things as I can find on it.)
I figure out what to do with the other miscellaneous things I’ve written down. There are usually several other miscellaneous things that I need to deal with – things to look up, expenses to record in You Need a Budget , and so on. There’s usually an obvious thing to do with each one of these things and I try to just do it right then and there; if it’s not feasible, I turn it into another to-do.
I make a double line when I’m finished. When I reach the bottom of the last page of notes, I just make a double line, as before, so that I know where to start processing the next time.
Swapping Out Old Notebooks
Eventually a notebook fills up. When that happens, I have to do something!
When an old notebook is full, I put it in a storage box, not for posterity but in case I need to see it again in the next week or two. I do have a box full of old notebooks, but I don’t have any need to keep them, per se. I do sometimes need to refer back to the past couple of notebooks because I have this sense that I’ve forgotten something (but it’s very rare that I have, because my system just takes care of everything).
My grandmother kept a notebook much like this one and I truly have enjoyed reading through that notebook and seeing her random thoughts and gift ideas. She liked writing down the weather each day and making notes on things she was cooking or gift ideas for people. I suppose my children and grandchildren might enjoy this, too, when they have my old notebooks.
I start a new notebook by putting my name and contact info on the inside of the front cover, along with offering a reward if it’s found. The Field Notes notebooks that I normally use have a blank space on the inside cover for just this information. If such a space isn’t present, I either use the inside front cover or the front page of the notebook for this kind of note. I’ve actually had lost pocket notebooks returned to me twice because of this.
If I’m getting close to the end of a book, I start carrying around its replacement. I don’t like to run out of pages, so I usually start carrying a new notebook when the previous notebook is down to the last several pages. That way, I can just switch to the new one immediately when the old one runs out.