For someone that has terrible handwriting and spends most of his time on a computer, I sure do have a complicated relationship with notebooks.
Like most geeks, I’ve liked Moleskine notebooks since I first met one. They feel nice. They’re a good size. The paper is deeply satisfying to write on. Something about writing in one makes you feel like you’ve got something important to write - or should, anyway.
And that was a problem. That nice little elastic band and the quality of the notebook actually caused me to not use them for a long time, even though I had one in my messenger bag all the time. It’s stupid, I know, but subconsciously, I was convinced that such a nice notebook deserved to be filled with something better than random lists, fragmented notes, and little sketches, all of it in poor handwriting. It caused just enough resistance that I wouldn’t use it - there was that tiny subconscious barrier, from pulling the notebook out of my bag, pulling off the band, and making my notes look good enough for the notebook, and that was just enough. It was stupid, but maybe it wasn’t all me: I mean hell, every one comes with a little insert that describes how they’ve been used by the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh, and Hemingway. How can you not feel a little pressured to live up to the notebook?
A few months ago, I met Field Notes. These pocket-sized notebooks are sturdy, straightforward, and they come from a company that doesn’t take themselves so seriously. They were exactly what I needed.
I started off my Field Notes by putting the date at the top of every page, because it’s nice to know when I wrote something when I go back to look at it again. But as it turns out, that was barrier enough. If I force myself to use even a simple convention like the date at the top of the page, I often won’t bother - even forcing that tiny ‘rule’ on my own notebook was enough to keep me from using it (have I mentioned I’m a little OCD?)
Then I settled on a simple enough convention that I would do quickly when necessary, simple enough that it wouldn’t cause even a split-second hesitation when I reach for my notebook. If a page has any to-do items on it, I put an empty checkbox in the upper corner. If it’s some kind of reference material - notes from our dog’s vet appointment, a list of restaurants we want to check out, decisions made at some meeting at work - I write REF at the top corner. This way, I can flip through and see what pages I need to revisit. I give myself just enough information that it’s negligible include it, but all I really need when I’m looking for something later on.
This worked nicely for a couple weeks, but I soon found that I had more to write than could comfortably fit on a page or two in the Field Notes. And before I knew it, I was back in Moleskines. If I keep it on me all day, and have it at the ready, I will actually take notes during meetings and phone calls - and really, that was what I needed all along. I had to change my perception of it from being a notebook for capital-w Writing, to being a regular old notebook for meeting notes, and now I have it on me all the time at the office. I’ve also started numbering the pages and keeping a simple index at the back of the book, so I can easily locate notes on a particular RFC I was reviewing or a conference call I took part in (a trick I learned from Tim Ferris).
This week, I stopped carrying my Field Notes altogether. Some part of me still feels like I should have a little notebook with me all the time, just in case, but the reality is that I was never using it, so why bother? Notebooks have been one of the more persistent expressions of my OCD, so I’m still kind of surprised that in a matter of a few months, I wound up right back where I started - for now.