My notebook is the center of my day-to-day workflow. In it I track what I need to do, what I am doing, what we've discussed in a meeting, and countless other things. It isn't terribly often that I actually go back more than a week or so to look at things — I tend to transfer long-term notes into digital storage after I've processed them — but they're still there, and I find the very act of writing with pen helpful.
However, it isn't just an ad-hoc thing where I write without structure. There is quite a bit of structure to how I use the notebook, and it helps immensely as I plan and execute my work.
The first thing I do on Monday is to start a new page in the notebook for the Week Plan. I write a header with the week's dates, move my Post-It flag to the page, and begin laying out my week.
The first portion of this page is for this week's ‘Desired Outcomes’. At the end of the week, what do I need or want to have done? These may require several subsidiary steps — those are for the daily pages — but it is where I capture what I want to accomplish.1 I use the Bullet Journal todo syntax for this list: a hyphen that I turn in to a cross when the task is completed.
I usually divide this into 2–3 sections for teaching, research, service/maintenance, etc.
The second portion is the ‘Week Outline’. Here I leave 2-3 lines for each day, and use it to write down my major scheduled events (classes, research group meeting, etc.) and deadlines so that I have a quick overview of the major fixed points in my week.
I still rely heavily on my Google calendar, and it is the master location for all of my scheduled activities. But I find writing out my week outline to be a useful analog ritual that forces me to take a few minutes to think about what all the week has in store.
With my week planned, I turn to my daily log. For each day, I have a section — sometimes a whole page, but I often fit 2–3 daily logs on a page — that tracks that day's activity.
At the beginning of the day, I start the daily log section. With header, of course. I then consult my calendar and write down the day's scheduled activities, and finally write down some desired outcomes for the day, again using Bullet Journal syntax. This is when, ideally, I also review my week plan to make sure that I'm moving forward on the things I need to.
Throughout the day, I mark off the things I finish and add new ones that I have done. I try to record just about everything here: e-mails that move projects forward, new invitations, little tasks completed, etc. This is in part a self-care ritual, a dynamic that I plan to write about in my next post. It also helps when I go to reflect on the week, either in an end-of-week review or when I'm preparing my 1-minute ‘here's what I did this week’ update for our research group meeting.
Throughout the notebook, either under a daily log or on a fresh page, I also capture notes from meetings, brainstorming sessions, etc. I almost always have my notebook with me during the week, and it is my default place to capture things.
However, it is a little difficult to go back and retrieve information from the notebook. So if I have captured notes that need to go into some more persistent or referencable form, I usually synthesize and digitize them after I've returned to my office. This also allows me to quickly capture while in a meeting, and then later reflect on what actually needs to be recorded in the project outline Google doc or Trello board.
What Doesn't Work
When I first started using a notebook, I also used it to track project TODO lists. I would have a page for each project, indexed in the front of the notebook, that tracked the overall tasks for that project. When I ran out of lines, I would start a new page and copy the uncompleted tasks over.
However, I did not find this to work well. I did not refer often enough to my project task lists, and it meant there were 3 physical places I had to check off a task: daily log, weekly log, and TODO list. It was also difficult to get a quick view of what all I needed to do across multiple projects. So my long-term project task storage is all digital right now.
Finally, I would like to briefly discuss the physical notebook. I think it's helpful for productivity equipment to be something I genuinely enjoy using, so I have taken some time to find tools I like.
My favorite notebook is the Leuchtturm1917 A5 Hardcover, square-ruled. It has pre-numbered pages, good paper, and a front index sheet for recording the page numbers of important items. I am currently using a square-ruled Moleskine, because it was what was available locally, but I do not like it as well and plan to return to the Leuchtturm for next year.
I find that a notebook lasts me about one year.
I've been through a number of pens; I am currently using the Staedtler Pigment Liner and find it to be very good. I like the line of the Sakura Pigma Micron, but find that the tips are not durable enough to be my regular pen. I keep some colored Microns around for accents, particularly on my weekly plan. Idaho Blueprint Supply is less than a block from my office, and they have a good selection of technical pens.
I find that the process of writing out what I'm going to do is immensely helpful to getting it done, and checking off completed tasks is viscerally satisfying. I didn't use my notebook at Texas State — in part because the standing desk setup I had didn't work very well with it — and felt my productivity suffered partially as a result. Now that I'm back in the notebook, with some refinement from its previous iteration, the weekly and daily rhythms of my workflow are working pretty well again.
I am still working on the aspirational vs. realistic aspects of making this list.↩