some thoughts on notebook organization

my notebook shelf

I’ve gone through periods of trying to resist it, but I think I’ve finally come to peace with the fact that I’m a notebook guy. Here are some pictures and notes about how I’m organizing things within my notebooks these days. I don’t think any of these techniques are original to me — i.e., I think I saw other folks doing them and “borrowed” their ideas — but it might be useful for other folks to see how I do things, maybe?

And it’s not like you’ve got anything else to do, you staying-safe-and-staying-at-home person, you. Read on!

one notebook: simply no longer sufficient

my current notebooks

Currently, I’m rocking two notebooks at once: a thicker Moleskine (current version some swag my company handed out at our last in-person all-hands, on the right in the above photo), and a thinner Moleskine Cahier (on the left). The thicker notebook is for meeting notes, project-related thinking, and other “big” things, while the Cahier is a Bullet Journal-esque daybook of more ephemeral stuff – primarily todo lists and scratch paper.

My “system of record” for ubiquitous capture, project planning, and overall todo item management is still Omnifocus. However, 8 or 9 months back, I figured out that I got way more things accomplished if I sat down at the very start of my day with Omnifocus and some paper, and specifically wrote up a list of what I intended to do that day. I’m not sure what it was about writing the todo items out into a list on paper that worked better: if the repetition of re-writing the items kept them more front-of-mind, or if it triggered some sort of commitment loop in my brain, or what. I just knew doing that in the morning, plus a similar phase at the end of the day where I checked things off in Omnifocus and made sure any new things I’d written down in my daybook made it back into Omnifocus, resulted in me just …getting more shit done.

an aside

It’s good to remember, from time to time, that the ultimate point of all these systems, this stuff, these rituals, and …all this productivity bullshit, is, at the end, just getting more shit done. Sometimes, dear reader, it ain’t the journey, it’s just the destination.

all i ever wanted was to be your spine

I organize each of these notebooks in the same way, using the same overall system. First, when I pick up a fresh notebook for the first time, I write down the current date on the top spine (hashtag ISO 8601 for life). Once the notebook is filled up and ready to archive, I’ll put that current date next to the start date. In the extremely-infrequent case I need to go back to a particular time period to look for something, this helps narrow down which notebooks to look through.

notebook spine dates

breadcrumbs by any other name

Next, every notebook starts with an index, or table of contents. For the thicker Moleskines, I reserve a couple pages at the beginning; for the thinner Cahiers, I’ve never needed more than the first page. On the index page, I track each topic, project, or type of page I have, and which subsequent page(s) of the notebook are about that subject.

start of an index page

I number each page in the upper outside corner, but each different subject gets a two-page “spread” devoted to it, and in the index I only track the first, left-hand page number. So, in the photo above, the “Daily” topic covers the spreads on pages 2-3, 4-5, and 6-7.

ain’t no data like some good ole metadata

Each spread, in addition to the page numbers, gets a “header” on the left hand page. The header has the subject for the spread, and — depending on whether this is the first spread for this subject or a subsequent one — pointers back to the previous spread for this subject, and possibly forward to the next one. In this example, the previous “Daily” spread starts on page 2; the subsequent one starts on page 6. (It seems a little silly when they’re all together like this, but in my thicker Moleskine, it’s not uncommon to see something like a subject that started on page 14 and then jumped to page 42, then onward to 126.)

page header from an intermediate spread

active versus archived

I review the active parts of these notebooks at least once a week, during my weekly review. (Sometimes more frequently, depending on how many meetings I’m attending and how much stuff I’m capturing.) But once I’ve filled up a particular spread, and reviewed it once to make sure any tasks or followups have been moved into Omnifocus, I don’t need to look at it again. I track that by snipping off the lower right-hand corner of the page. That makes it super easy, when I sit down to review again, to find the pages I need to look at – just pick the ones that still have a right hand corner, and skip the ones that have been trimmed!

a cut corner a bunch of cut corners


So, that’s how I notebook, mostly! As I said above, I’m pretty sure I stole all of these techniques from somebody else, but I’ve been doing them for so long, I no longer have any idea who to credit for them. Hopefully this post is useful to somebody, even if only as a temporary diversion from the current omnishambles. And hey, if you’ve got a significantly different way of organizing your notebooks, maybe you should write that up and share it — I could use some more distractions myself.