Like it or not, our brains aren’t that great at remembering everything we need or want them to. Bards in Medieval Europe might have memorized ballads and recited them from memory, but these were works of a lifetime, the people who did it devoted their lives to it. Especially in the 21st century with the barrage of input we encounter every day, its necessary to have some way to keep everything organized and recorded outside of just our own fallible minds. What follows is my personal organizational system borrowed in part from other people, and significantly simpler than say David Allen’s “Getting Things Done,” but it does what I need it to do, and when it doesn’t, I’ll rework it. Feel free to use any, all, or none of what follows. Find what works for you and use it.
Before Moleskine got popular and carrying a pocket notebook became hip, men from farmers to businesspeople and most anyone in between carried one of these. I’ve found it to be incredibly useful and one of the things I carry around on a daily basis, even if I don’t have anything else but a book with me.
How you use these little notebooks is highly personal. Different people have used them for all different sorts of reasons. Personally I use Field Notes or Evernote Moleskines and write in them from front to back and back to front. Going back to front is a To-Do list, and front to back is a collection point for most everything else. Ideas for writing projects, quotes, quips, jokes, and all manner of other information that will likely eventually find its way into my commonplace. I suppose you could do this electronically. Evernote is basically a modern day pocket notebook/Commonplace, and I love and use it, but there’s something special, almost sacred about doing these by hand. There’s also scientific evidence that writing by hand is actually beneficial in ways typing isn’t. Plus, I can leave physical items behind instead of a list of usernames and passwords to various cloud based services and that just gives me the warm fuzzies (I know, I’m weird).
Like pocket notebooks, the creation and maintenance of a Commonplace Book has a long and storied history that Evernote doesn’t really do justice to. These books became popular during the European Renaissance among scholars and students as a way to keep a record of all manner of information. Plenty of well known people have kept such records including HP Lovecraft, and more recently Ronald Reagan (incidentally, if anyone finds a similar published collection from Lovecraft’s commonplace book, shoot me a link). My system, like Reagan’s, can’t really be called a book. It’s the same system used by Ryan Holiday who learned it from his mentor Robert Greene.
Instead of a blank journal, the system is based around index cards and file boxes. Any bit of information is transcribed onto a 4×6 index card, by hand or typed for longer items, marked with a subject in the upper right hand corner, and filed into a small red plastic folder. Holiday uses giant boxes designed to hold photos, but I haven’t been doing this for almost a decade, so have significantly less material to deal with.
Where does the content come from? Put simply, everywhere! Bits from books I’ve read, quotes from movies, TV, internet videos, conversations, my own ideas. In a sense the commonplace, like the pocket notebook, serves as an external memory.
Among my New Years resolutions was to make a habit of keeping a diary, something I’ve continually tried and failed to do with any regularity, and I bet I’m not the only one. This time, however, I think I’ve found a better method. Austin Kleon calls it a logbook. Its also essentially the same system Leo Babauta uses. I also happen to use and love the same moleskine daily planner as Austin.
The log book is kept in an actual diary, not a blank notebook. These are the blank books that actually have the day and date printed on each page. Pre-printed dates are nice for two reasons: One, you don’t have to look up the date. The second is a bit more pragmatic. If you miss a couple days you have to flip past a bunch of blank pages to get to the current date instead of just starting the next entry right where the last one left off. This is a little thing called negative reinforcement and it can go a long way to encouraging the habit.
So what actually gets written down? Bullet points of things that I actually did. Finished a book? Put the title in there. Start or complete a project at work? Write an article for a side hustle? yet another thing that can be included. The bullet points don’t have to be complete sentences either. Actually its probably better if they’re not, as long as a reasonably intelligent person can tell what an entry says. I tend to include everything, even getting coffee in the morning from the local coffee shop. I also doodle something in the corner for the weather and actually doodle all over the page. If I spend money, I’ll put a “$” next to the entry. If I see a movie, I’ll doodle a projector. The logbook and planner are meant to work in tandem as compliments. The planner tracks appointments, commitments, things that I’m planning to do, etc. The logbook is a record of what I actually did.
Speaking of planners, I use a relatively simple, direct system that is not much different than what most kids are taught to use in school with one or two little tweaks. The planner I use is an Evernote moleskine weekly planner. These are great because they have a week on a page. The facing page for each week is a blank lined page for notes. This gets used for various things, the most important of which is noting future commitments. When I’m scheduling something farther away than the current week. Most importantly, I keep the entire thing in pencil because, well, life is fluid and changes almost inevitably need to be made.
I also use Google Calendar. I do this because I tend to schedule out my days more completely than just appointments. I’d love to use a paper planner, but I have yet to find one that starts before 8am. This helps maintain sense of discipline and productivity, though I still manage to goof off more than I probably should. If there’s interest I can write a post about how this works, though my system isn’t really any different from the one Brett McKay lays out in this video.
Though this system is pretty intentionally analog, I use and love Evernote as well (hence the Evernote Moleskine planner). I take pictures of my planner pages to keep a backup record (this has the added advantage that if I check a little box on a day in the planner Evernote automatically sets a reminder for that day). I photograph basically anything I want to have a backup/record of, including commonplace cards, logbook pages, receipts, sticky notes, etc. Speaking of receipts, I have any receipt sent to my email that I can, and then forward it into Evernote, because I know how likely I am to actually keep that little slip of paper and not recycle it. Evernote is also slowly becoming my primary word processor as well. Every post you’ve read since the New Year has been written and edited in Evernote before being copy pasted to WordPress.
So the question becomes how do I organize all this? If you’re familiar with the program, you’ll probably think notebooks. Basically a notebook is the equivalent of a real world notebook, and notes are pages in it. However, this really isn’t a great way to organize things. If you look at my account I only have two notebooks and a stack of another three. Everything else is organized using tags. The notebooks I use are: @inbox, cabinet, and a stack called External Brain, which contains “pocket notebook”, “planner”, and “logbook”, which are digital backups of the analog systems discussed above. “@inbox” is precisely what it sounds like. Everything that gets put in my account goes here first to get sorted and filed. Cabinet is essentially storage of everything thats not currently being used. I have a range of tags that are currently in flux but include, for example, “read later” for articles that have been saved to my Instapaper account, and “receipt” for images of receipts.
The above system took me a while to figure out, and is still being fine tuned and played with, but its what works for me. The pairing of the planner and logbook let me keep track of whats been going on in my life and whether I’m actually doing anything worthwhile, and the pocket notebook and commonplace help me remember things and keep track of everything that need to get done as well as be more engaged with what I’m doing. Evernote while not used for everything directly works as a back up to keep a record of everything, including writing projects so its all sorted in a central location. How do you stay organized? Does any or all of the above system sound useful to you? Do you have a different system that works for you? Head on down to the comments and share if you like.