Michael Ekstrand

The Notebook — Daily and Weekly Work

Published on 16 Feb 2017 and tagged with productivity.
Moleskine notebook with pen

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.


This structure is inspired by the Bullet Journal with a dose of the Week Chart, adapted to work with the weekly rhythms of academic life.

Weekly Plan

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.

Week plan with desired outcomes and week outline
Week Plan

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.

Daily Log

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.

Notes

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.

The Hardware

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.

Conclusion

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.


  1. I am still working on the aspirational vs. realistic aspects of making this list.