How to use a notebook: 7 quick tips

You never know when your brain is going to flash on an idea, a great gift, or something you need from the store. That’s why I carry a small notebook around with me most of the time. Here are some productivity tips on how to use a “hipster PDA” effectively.

  1. Get one. I got mine for about a buck at Office Depot. It looks like this:
  2. Mead notepad

  3. Write the date on the outside of the notebook. If you start using notebooks a lot, you’ll find it very handy to be able to sort notebooks by time.
  4. Clear out your brain. When you think of a task for work or a book that you want to buy, just write it down. This lets you concentrate on important things instead of remembering small items.
  5. Avoid the temptation to write on both sides of the page: just write on one side. You’ll see why in a minute.
  6. Keep each separate subject on a separate page. One page could be things to get done at work that day. Another page could be a meeting agenda. Another page could be books you want to read, or movies you want to see. Yet another could be things you want to blog about. But don’t mix the meeting agenda with your blogging to-do list. You’ll see why in a minute.
  7. When you’re finished with a page, yank out that page. Crumple it up and throw it away. Maybe you’re back from the grocery store and everything is crossed off your grocery list page. Try to finish out the notebook with almost all your pages ripped out.
  8. You want the notebook to be empty or nearly empty when you run out of blank paper. It’s very satisfying to yank a page out of the notebook when you’re done with a task. You want the page to pull away cleanly, so look for a notebook that is perfect bound. That is, the spine of the notebook is square and the pages are held in place with glue. I’ve found the “Square Deal” memo pads from Mead to be just right for me.
  9. A bonus tip: if you’re about to head to a big event like a conference and think you might take a lot of notes, feedback, or details, then start with a fresh notebook.

The observation here is pretty simple: the notepad is not your entire filing system. That notebook is just your short-term working memory. Ideally anything that you jot down in the notebook (e.g. movies to see) can eventually go onto a longer-term list, such as your Netflix queue for movies.

If you want to get advanced, you can store some small amount of info in the inside cover of the notebook. For example, there’s a cafe that I like with free WiFi. Their WEP password is their phone number. So I keep that WEP password on the inside cover of my notebook. Arguably things like passwords could go in your head or laptop or phone though. I really only use my “hipster PDA” to remember things until I can move them over into a better place or take care of them quickly.

57 Responses to How to use a notebook: 7 quick tips (Leave a comment)

  1. Dave (original)

    Avoid the temptation to write on both sides of the page: just write on one side. You’ll see why in a minute.

    Unless it’s Earth Hour :)

  2. I take several post it notes, large ones, fold them in half and stick them in my wallet. I never forget them, and I always have something to jot a note down on. Another great option is your cell phone. If it records (Motorola even has a button on the side of the phone for this), you can simply leave yourself a voice memo with a task or an idea.

  3. Wow Matt, was not expecting something like this as your next post. This is excellent advice and I’m delighted to see methods other than “tech” methods being taught here. Books like this are old school and can help tremendously.

    I’ve kept similar notebooks next to my bed for years, and they are incredibly useful, especially when traveling at conferences and such. I had not thought about putting dates on the books but I tear and toss the pages as you mentioned. One thing I do is write phrases on the front covers such as “this or something greater” or “moving forward.” May seem kooky but I feel it adds a bit of creative magic to the pages.

    The answers are on the pages.

  4. Matt, notebooks are always good companion, I agree to that.
    I use on myself, with a fundamental difference to what you have just wrote.
    I keep the pages, notes, and never yank out a page. Why? One day it will be good to return to the notebook, and see what life was at that time.
    I short time frame, I frequently return to pages just to find a long forgotten phone number again, an idea, or just to compare things.
    And one more good idea: write the date on top of the each page. You might want to know later hwne that particular idea happened, a note written.

  5. I used notebooks for years until I got used to my notebook. Now I simply email notes to myself, my partners or my collective brain (Twitter.com/bomega) and be done with it.

    One problem with paper (less with digital devices) is that I can have a perfect collection of thoughts in my head but as soon as I pick up a pencil my head seems to erase. Like the pen bursts the balloon that is holding my ideas. Any tips for that…

  6. Great post mat. I would have expected you to say you moved everything over to your iPhone or something. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one that still writes things down on paper. Though I have used my iPod touch from time to time to make quick notes when a pen wasn’t handy. I still prefer paper. It’s not prone to bugs, power failure or crashes. Good old fashioned reliability. You can’t be at that with a computer. No even Linux ;)

  7. Good idea

    when I go to conferencs I take a load of blank index cards so if required I can use them to write the key points of a speach out

    Thats if i dont have the time to write the whole thing out properly with timings etc.(ie like last year when I got on the Train to Plymouth looking forward to the 4 hours on the train to write my speaches only to find the train did not have power sockets :-( )

  8. Thanks for the tipps.. I think i will stick to my laptop.. Working with mindmaps and the fact that sometimes i cant even read my own writings, lets me stick to a computer rather than a notebook :)

  9. Why do you date your notebooks to sort by time/date if you are ripping all the pages out? Do you have a box of date stamped notebook covers Matt?

    Hoarder! ; – )

    Matt

  10. ark

    Please write your phone number on the cover or inside the cover, if you ever lose it, then you can get it back!

  11. It’s not mentioned in the synopsis, but Larry David has an episode where he looses his, “Hipster PDA”. Funny episode (“The Wire”) –

    http://www.hbo.com/larrydavid/episode/season1/episode06.html

    A good one for Tivo/Netflix.

  12. Wow, I am happy to see that even googlers use old-school stuff ! I personnaly use 10*7.8 marble notebooks but keep all of them with all their pages (got dozens of it). Since I live in France I bought them each time I went to UCLA for work… And each time we have a new graduate student in our team, I offer him one of this notebook, we call them “notebooks for researchers that really discovers things”… ;)

  13. fritz (yes, that fritz)

    Very useful! Matt, do you use any other tools or processes wrt to journaling or notekeeping? On- or offline tools?

    (Hi, btw!)

  14. Nice to see an article on the importance of keeping some of your life off the internet…even if it is just a few fleeting thoughts. We can’t forget about the notepads we grew up with!

  15. hmmm…

    At the bottom of the email from Google confirming my attendance at the auto summit:

    ** PLEASE CONSIDER THE ENVIRONMENT BEFORE PRINTING THIS EMAIL AND ASSOCIATED ATTACHMENTS**

    You recycle those torn out sheets, right? ;)

  16. Hmmm

    :-D

    Hah! Fun reminder of the value of “old media” — it’s easy to forget the portability and durability of a dead tree PDA. They don’t break when dropped, or short out when wet. :-)

    I got hooked on notebooks during college/grad school and never looked back.

  17. I have taken to documenting my ideas like that recently as well. I have been finding that when it comes time to write something for my blog any and all decent ideas I have had in the past few days are all of the sudden gone. Having my little note book does seem to help some with this.

    nice post,

    jim

  18. Not to pick nits Matt, but “Crumple it up and throw it away”?

    You are pretty influential.

    I’d have expected you to have avoided the evil of wasteful trash production and instead encouraged the recycling of a renewable item like wood pulp based notebook paper.

    From the cover, that sample notebook makes no mention of its recycled paper content. Folks should buy notebooks made from already recycled paper.

    I’m sure this was only an oversight on your part but worth a mention.

  19. Matt,

    Please take everything you just described above and make it into a Google App. Seriously.

    Thanks,

    Jim McNelis

  20. Ditto; I do the exact same thing.

    The only difference in our methodologies is the notebook used. I used to use Moleskine Cahiers, but have relegated them to the bookshelf in favour of the new Moleskine Volants. The Extra Small version is perfect: small enough to fit in any pocket and not be an annoyance; well-made, with smooth, butter paper, and every one of its pages are detachable (perforated.)

  21. I always carry a notebook too, the personal pages that I can use to remember something nice that I did go into a scrapbook with photos and tickets etc. It’s a really nice thing to look back on a few years later.

  22. Michael Dorausch, I like the idea of putting a little something inspirational on the front. They say the Apple logo makes people more creative, so why not write a fun or rejuvenating quote on the front?

    Raha, for longer-term stuff that you might want to refer back to, I do recommend getting a larger notebook (letter-sized paper) and writing the date on each page as you write. This can be a good way to document when you came up with an idea.

    aeronautic, when I say “throw them away” people should feel free to throw them away in the best way they want, e.g. throw them on the top of a compost heap. And if you can get recycled paper, I agree that’s a good thing.

    Matthew Anderson, inevitably for me I can’t yank out every page. Out of an 80-page notebook, I’ll have 5-10 recalcitrant pages that just refuse to be yanked. Sometimes they have great ideas that I need to transcribe somewhere else. Sometimes they’re notes from a fun lecture I watched and don’t have a good place to put them. Ideally, you would end up with an empty notepad but in practice that’s difficult to make happen. If you date your notebooks, then you can at least sort them until you get up the spring cleaning verve to completely process and file those last few pages in each notebook.

  23. Aaron

    Excellent Point. I would suggest that you write out each day’s action plan(s) at the end of the day before, which gives you clarity and focus to get to work right away as soon as you arrive at your desk. Sometimes it can take up to 2 hours to get back into things, with a serious plan worked out already, you will be so much more productive.

  24. I keep a notepad like this for work – I have them going back about six years now. I never tear anything out of it, never know when you’ll want to go back and look for something that seemed trivial at the time. Even an empty page of notes from a meeting that didn’t go anywhere – since I date all entries, I at least know that I had a useless meeting on that date :)

  25. Matt – check out pocketmod.com. I’m addicted.

  26. pen and paper … how quaint ;-)

    I totally use Jott and my mobile phone, which hooks into gmail, my blog, twitter, RTM, and google calender. It amuses my children and my friends when I randomly pick up the phone and say “Jott … self … solve world hunger” and then 60 seconds later I get an SMS confirmation my message was routed, but it’s sooooo much easier than carrying around a pen and paper IMHO.

  27. added doing something twice (writing it down and then typing it in later) is so anti-GTD it makes me cringe. Touch it once and get it into your GTD system ASAP so your system doesn’t have holes.

  28. vote for @Jim McNelis

  29. graywolf, how do you review your Jott notes when your cell phone doesn’t have reception? Don’t get me wrong, I’m about as wired as people can get, but having a pen/paper to store a tiny amount of working memory has been very productive for me.

  30. Harith

    Matt,

    I use a similar notebook each morning at work to write my “TO DO LIST”. What I can’t reach today, I move to the next page. However to be honest my notebook is a black more nice than your ugly red notebook :-)

  31. I have a perfect notebook for this. It says “Google Code” on the front.

    Perhaps if you visited the marketing department more often you could save on the notebook expenses ;)

  32. spamhound

    Yes, good old paper and pen have done me well. I get the bundle packs at the office store.

    Technology is great, but sometimes a pen and paper can more productive.

  33. ….an I thought I was the only one that does this…

    I’ve got Mead notebooks everywhere car, fanny pack, jackets, cool Google backpack ;) and even one in my kayak in sealable sandwich bag…..

    I did use a Palm way back when you could write on the screen and not have to have a ‘phone with it too..

    David

  34. This weekend I caught up on family related email by – gasp – printing them out and reading them while watching my kids play in the yard. As I finished the pages I wadded them up and threw them at the kids, watching as the dog tried to catch them first and eat them. Not very green, not very web 2.0, not very hip. But a very nice way to spend an hour.

  35. Jott notes sit in jott server which why send most of the stuff to gmail, RTM, or Calender. I dont visit many places that dont have cell reception. The only one that kind of annoying is being in airplane going cross country, which is also when I dont have internet access to mail or anything else. So I plan around that limitation.

    I REALLY recommend Getting things done by David Allen

    http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Things-Done-Stress-Free-Productivity/dp/0142000280

    I gave them as gift last XMAS I’d give you one but I know you cant take it ;-)

    You cant follow it word for word but find an adaptive version that works for you. Seriously there are 4 email in my inbox and < 20 starred for follow up. I am way more productive than I used to be.

  36. On second thought I think you should go back to doing everything by hand the long way, a less productive Matt Cutts means less gray hat stuff getting taken care of ;-)

  37. I always do this. At work, I have a yellow legal pad called “My Brain.” Anytime someone asks me to do something, it goes into the brain! For my personal paper brain, I prefer wire-bound spiral so I can fold the front cover all the way around :D

  38. I don’t have time to learn to write, is there an emulator for my Eee PC :)

  39. Well all the spammers are having a ball, Matt is too busy with getting tattoos, discovering what life was like before the internet and trying to slide his iphone in just about every hole he can find,
    :D

  40. Shawn Shepherd

    “I don’t have time to learn to write”

    That’s not funny, I’ve almost completely forgotten how to write by hand, and cursive… forget it!

  41. Hi Matt,

    thanks a lot for these great tips. I was actually thinking about this the other day, and I have a related question for you.

    Sometimes, when I have to walk for a bit all alone, maybe on the way to work or back home, I start thinking, and thinking… about everything, work, to-do things, and so on. Maybe I think too much, and all those ideas? I don’t know where to put them! I mean, if you are walking and you don’t have anything to write down your stuff, what’s the best way to remember things afterwards?

    I would really love to have one “gadget” that when you think it could save your ideas directly on a file, so then when you login back on your PC you find all your things already nicely listed! ;)

    Thanks Matt,
    Christian

  42. webdiggr

    Could it have to do with the Google notebook?

    I checked some of the Google serps, your title comes in 3rd place for “how to use a notebook” right above mahalo result on how to use a GOOGLe notebook…

    Just a strange post if you ask me… Call me paranoid, but I think you’re using your blog to do SERP tests…

  43. Hey Matt, Really liked your productivity post, but I must disagree with tearing things out, I used to keep notes like this, and it was really kind of neat to look back on the things that I thought where important or special at the time, mind you this only works if you keep comprehensive notes. And I should really read your productivity posts after work, kinda defeats the purpose ;)

  44. Adriana

    i must have 50 notebooks all over the house. the problem is, i have to write whatever very quickly or i’ll forget, so each page has short and long term stuff. nothing gets thrown out and eventually i can’t find anything. lol.

    i like using the little notebooks with 3 different colored papers, good for when you TRY to organize ideas.

    i also keep a digital voice recorder on me at all times. it will record 144+ hours and you can index the files. (i’m a geek. lol)

  45. I personally think that both you and Raha are correct. If you rip out a page you feel some form of success, yet if you keep the page you have something to look back on.

    I have about 15 note books each with about 10 pages written on. Why? They all look the same and I have not dated them. This means when I am in a rush (big procrastinator) I just pick up the first one. So I guess I have learned to mark my notebooks with a date. Thank you Mr Cutts!

  46. Matt,

    Great article. One of the places where you cant beat an old fashioned notebook is on the plane.

    I actually come up with some of my best ideas on takeoffs and landings and of course those are the times that the cherry flight attendants force you to power down your electronic devices.

    The only drawback to a notebook is losing it!. Especially if you lose it before you have had a chance to compile the notes and ideas in the notebook into an electronic format. I am still mourning over a full notebook I somehow lost at Moscone last October:-)

  47. EGOL

    Matt, I really enjoyed this post. I am getting a notebook today. Great tip – one of the best, yet so simple. :D

  48. Great tips. However in a consumer nation, I don’t think it’s completely right to say tips #4 and #5 “tear off a piece of paper”. That doubles the consumption by not using both pages and (I think) people need to change their attitudes on how much they waste.

    However, if people MUST use this process of ripping out a page when they’re done and not using both sides, they should hopefully look into getting recycled paper. Or better yet, tree-free paper. I think I might be a bit biased because I work for a company that develops tree-free paper notebooks/journals. But these are MUCH better for the environment then white paper.

    A list of places to get organic tree free notebooks are as follows:

    http://www.ecopaper.com (i work here!)
    http://www.justpaper.com
    http://www.rawganique.com/HempPaperProducts.htm

    or you can go to ecomall.com and they have a good listing of other paper places. Please help our environment! Everyone can make a difference!

  49. EGOL

    Got two notebooks today. Pages that don’t get torn out will be circa punched and put into the big project book. Working great so far. Tore out three or four pages.

  50. Harith, I vary the color of the notebook to get some variety. I do think that making a todo list each morning is a pretty good way to prioritize and get things done though.

  51. I’ve kept a little black book for as long as I can remember. Thankfully it remembers a little better than I do.

    But have recently replaced it with my Nokia – heck, can’t read my handwriting half the time anyhow.

  52. kid320

    Thank you for this article. I used to carry a PDA with me, which I never used. It quickly became another hunk of equipment to weigh me down, and I eventually stopped carrying it. I have often toyed with this idea, but never really thought it out far enough. I pretty much convinced myself that it would never work. Seeing as I have recently found organization in other parts of my life, I figured I would now give this a try. I walked to Rite Aid and bought a Square Deal notepad, just like yours, and started writing a few things in it. I already feel less stressed and more content with the things I have to do.

    My only problem is, I normally wear jeans and a t-shirt. The only time I have a top pocket is when I am at work. So, I can carry the notepad in my back pocket, opposite my wallet, but I had to find a pen that is small enough to fit alongside the notepad, preferably one that clips onto the notepad without making it any thicker. I was able to use a standard retractable pen, then make a few loops of tape alongside the binding so I can slide the pen into the tape loops. On the back side of the tape (the place where the pen is going to slide), I didn’t want it to be sticky, so I put another piece of tape over that portion before I put it on the edge of the book. Once it was on, I then reinforced the tape so it doesn’t peel off or get torn. It doesn’t look pretty, but if everything had to be pretty, I would have lost citizenship a long time ago.

    What kind of method do you implement for a writing tool?

  53. Now all you need is a pen. When I’m not in my work environment I don’t like to carry a pen. However, I usually will have my keys so here’s what I use.

    Small Swiss Army knife with retractable pen: http://www.swissarmy.com/MultiTools/Pages/Product.aspx?category=executive&product=53031&amp;

    Since you only need to write a quick note, this works well. You’d be surprised how long the pen lasts. The replacement only costs $2.50 too.

  54. John A

    I use a half sheet of Folded card stock, but I think this is a better idea.

  55. Michael

    I am a bit confused. If the goal is to have al pages thrown away, then why the need to have the date on the front page? After all pages are gone, do you keep the cover with the date?

  56. I am agree with you about the importance of carrying witu us a notebook all time, because of this way we can write an important idea that our brain flash on, I keep one on me all time, it is very useful, but remember, never forget a pen or a pencil.

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