My Current Notebooking Techniques

Since the STEMpunk project involves digesting a ton of information, I thought I’d share some changes I’ve made to my system of recording and reflecting on what I learn, which have helped me be more productive.

1) I have segregated my notebooks, one for journaling and high-level insights, one for indexing notes on books I’m reading and foreign language vocabulary, and one where I write out whatever daily mantras I’m doing (more on mantras in a future post).

You may have read that keeping everything in one place better fosters cross-domain insights. I did this for a long time and I don’t think it’s true. If anything I suffer from too many cross-domain insights, and this partitioning goes a long way toward keeping everything organized.

It also makes certain routines easier to stick to. At night I’ll usually put my journal notebook and my mantra notebook on the top of my notebook stack. Then, when I get up at 4:00 a.m. and groggily begin waking up, they’re the first things I reach for. When I’m done, the mantra notebook goes on the bottom, the journal notebook goes to the side to capture random thoughts, and the indexing notebook comes to the top, along with whatever book I’m reading.

2) My notes for books are kept in one place in the indexing notebook. As I read, whenever I find something I want to remember or dispute I include a little number directly on the pages of the book. Then, in my notebook I write down the page number and the index number along with my thoughts.

When I start a new book I take a full notebook page of notes, and use that to estimate how many pages I’ll need. So if the first 50 pages of a 250 page book takes one notebook page, I’ll assume the whole book will take about 5 notebook pages, and to be on the conservative side I will add a 6th. If it ends up taking more pages, I’ll skip forward to a blank spot in the notebook and add however many pages I think will be required.

This makes finding stuff a cinch.

And I only index by page. So, I don’t have 200 tags for “Deep Work”, I have three tags for page 101, one tag for page 102, etc. If I do it the other way, once I read ten pages without recording my indexes I’ll have to turn back to the last index to figure out where my count is.

3) I have a to-do notebook that’s small and contains the broad outlines of my tasks for the day. In addition I use a small 3 x 5 index card for anything that qualifies as shallow work. During deep work sessions the shallow card is nearby so I can jot down tasks like “make a blog post about this sweet notebooking system”.

This drastically reduces the Zeigarnik effect.

One advantage to dividing things up this way is that it makes it easier to plan the week out in your to-do notebook. When I kept shallow work and deep work in the same little notebook, I could never predict how much of a page a given day would take. Now a whole day’s shallow work fits on a 3 x 5 card and a whole days deep work fits on half of a notebook page.

Why does this matter? Because when I read about some new technique I want to try, like “Roosevelt Sprints” (described in “Deep Work“), instead of dropping everything and doing it right then, I just flip a few pages forward in my to-do notebook and write in “Do Roosevelt Sprints when cleaning the kitchen”.

If I find I can’t make the time when the day arrives, I just push it to the next day. The important thing is that I’m experimenting with interesting new techniques at a higher rate and with more consistency than I was doing in the past.

4) Once every week or every other week I do a notebook review, in which I consolidate whatever insights I’ve had throughout the week and plan the big-picture stuff I want to do in the coming week.

This has actually proven to be very fruitful, as it’s all too easy to have an insight or an idea and then to never follow up on it. Having a systematic way of reviewing your notes and thoughts means you get more return on the investment of writing everything down.

Now, I am giving thought to switching over to Evernote. But until I do I’ll be using some variant of the above, and with any luck some of you will find these techniques useful.

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