Why Notebooks Work For Me

This week I’ve highlighted the three notebooks I am using to replace my task manager app.

The reason that I find that notebooks work so well is because while notebooks are more versatile, they also need input and I don’t mean of the mouse and keyboard kind.

Digital task managers have a number of features that allow you to take shortcuts. I took these shortcuts as a way of avoiding planning and reviewing my next block of work. I simply let my task manager do it for me using features like lists and tags.

I can’t take shortcuts with a notebook. I can’t quickly filter out a subset of tasks. I can’t move a group of tasks in a few seconds. Given time I could do these but just not quickly. And that’s the reason I find that notebooks work so well.

Managing your tasks using notebooks means that you need to spend more time planning, reviewing and making decisions about what’s important.

They need that little bit of extra work. Work that I think is worth putting in.

So far, everything is going well. The only significant change was the introduction of the bullet journal, but I’ve already have plenty of use through my other notebooks to make the switch to the bullet journal easy.

To find out more follow Patrick Rhone and Belle Beth Cooper who are real notebook aficionados. Both update their blogs on a regular basis and feature posts around notebooks and how to use them. Patrick also has a website called The Cramped that you might revolves around analog writing.

The Logging Notebook

When it comes to getting things done the focus is always on what needs done and when you can do it. Without these two you would end up with the wrong task getting done at the wrong time. You’ll eventually find yourself just getting nowhere fast.

These two task variables are important but just as important is the time you spend looking at the progress you have made. In order to do that you need look past more than just the tasks you done.

I look to the tasks that fall into two categories:

  1. The difficult tasks that presented problems but were eventually done.
  2. The tasks that I enjoyed doing and that made a significant impact.

It’s these groups of tasks that make up the bulk of my final notebook in the process, the logging notebook. When it comes to looking back what you’ve done, you need to filter out the important tasks so that you know you are making progress. This is what I use the logging notebook for.

I’m using a Hobonichi Techo planner as my logging notebook. Persuaded by Patrick Rhone and Mike Rohde I bought one at the end of last year.

The notebook itself is fairly small and the paper although thin, is of superb quality. This makes it ideal for a broad range of writing instruments. I mostly use a Lamy Safari for this notebook, although I have done a few sketches with other pens.

Rather than using it as a planner, I record the big wins for the day and the tasks that I finished that made a real difference. Those “Yay me!” moments when it’s more than just another task done, it’s a significant amount of progress made.

The year is drawing to a close and I’m glad to say that the Hobonichi Techno planner has been a great investment as I use it daily. Next year’s is already sitting on my desk waiting to log the next set of wins .

You can use any notebook as your logging book. The most important thing is to log the wins. It adds a much clearer view of the progress you’ve made and also has the benefit of providing a much needed boost when you feel you have been slacking.

The Bullet Journal

Bullet journalling has been around for a few years now, but it’s only now that I’ve decided to start a bullet journal of my own. The bullet journal is the idea of Ryder Carroll. He wanted something easy to use and over a period of time, he tweaked what we now know as the bullet journal.

The bullet journal isn’t the notebook itself, it’s the conventions used in the notebook that make it a bullet journal. There are a number of different pages to a bullet journal:

  • Future log - A two-page spread listing what you need to do over the next six months.
  • Monthly log - A single page listing the month ahead and what you planned for each day.
  • Daily log - A page with tasks and notes listed for each day.
  • Collection - A single page comprising of a number of related tasks.
  • Index - A number of pages with references to any future logs, monthly logs, collections and any other page you need to remember.

I’m using it in much the same way as the method on the website with the exception of the bullets. I’ve been using Patrick Rhone’s DashPlus system for few years now for my notebooks for capturing and so I’m sticking with that.

I keep a list of recurring tasks that I must do each week and month. Every week I have admin work to do, invoices to review and marketing tasks to get done. I keep these tasks under two pages. The first is weekly and the second is monthly. Any recurring tasks get listed here and then migrated to the month log or daily log when I need too.

It’s fairly easy to pick up and that’s one of the reasons why I like it so much. Even the simplest task manager apps on the market have a degree of complexity about them. With the bullet journal everything is there to see. Nothing to hide.

The immediate benefit is that you’re away from the screen for periods at a time through the day. Modern technology is great and makes us more productive, but there comes a point where even modern technology becomes counterproductive and we end up needing something to reinforce what’s important to do next.

For me the big benefit is the need to spend more time reviewing and planning my tasks in the journal rather than simply seeing what my to do list has scheduled in place for me to do that day. Now that I spend more time planning my day and week I’m more aware of what I’m doing and the time I’m spending on each task.

The Pocket Notebook

I’ve been carrying a pocket notebook with me everywhere I go for the last few years but it hasn’t been until this year that I really started to use it on a daily basis.

The idea is simple. You keep a pocket notebook on you to capture ideas, thoughts and anything else that you’ll need to remember at a later date.

No matter what profession you find yourself in, the most essential function of the pocket notebook is to provide a place to capture the ideas that spring to mind throughout the day.

The Manly Tradition of the Pocket Notebook by The Art of Manliness

You might think it’s a little over the top but how many times have you tried to remember something that came to you a few hours before but you couldn’t? Unless you already have a place for these then I imagine that for most of you it’s quite a lot.

It used to happen to me all the time. I started using email to capture moments like this in Todoist, but that was the wrong place to capture them.

Instead I took the advice of Patrick Rhone and started using a notebook to capture all these little loose ends that come to me through the day.

It’s been a decision I haven’t regretted and become such an engrained habit in my day that my notebook goes with me everywhere.

At the moment I’m still working through a couple of pocket Moleskine notebooks, but I’ll be using the Field Notes notebooks when my first subscription arrives in a few weeks.

I keep my notebook in a Nock Hightower with a few index cards if I need to hand some information out. It also has space for a couple of pens and I also keep my headphones in here as well. Seems as good a place as any and it means all I need to lift if I’m going out is my keys, wallet, phone and Nock. I rarely go anywhere without all four.

A pocket notebook might get you stares and a few questions about it, but for capturing those bits of info you might need to remember later on, it can’t be beat.

Moving To An Analog Task Management System

A few weeks ago I decided to take the plunge and stop using Todoist as my task manager. As you know I’m a big fan of Todoist and it wasn’t easy making that decision. My frustrations came from the fact that I needed something more intentional than another app on my phone, another task list in the ether of the Internet. I need something that requires a bit more work to manage than just bashing in a few words with my keyboard or frantically clicking my mouse.

CJ Chilvers’ post about ditching your to do list had been on my mind for a few days before making the decision to stop using Todoist.

I’ve slowly become a convert to the idea that we need to concentrate on our calendars a whole lot more to achieve what we want in work and life. If you want it done, it must be scheduled. If it’s not scheduled, it’s just another item on your wishlist that will never be completed.

Kill Your To Do List by CJ Chilvers

Investing time in the task manager isn’t the priority, it’s investing the time in the calendar that makes the difference.

So, do I need Todoist? Well, I’ve been without it for over a month now and I’m still working, still busy and still making an income. Clearly working from your calendar is a good thing.

However, that leaves me without some form of tracking and managing tasks. I wanted something that didn’t have me sitting on my phone first thing in the morning, something that required a bit more effort to use and finally something that I could just pick up and start using regardless of where I am.

I’ve been using pocket notebooks to capture stuff through the day like notes, messages, tasks, ideas, books to read and so on. Being able to stop, write, and then carry on working gives me a little break from the screen through the day but it also got me thinking about using more notebooks to manage my tasks.

I might have killed my to do list on Todoist, but I still needed some form of task management. And that’s what this week’s posts are about. So tune in tomorrow for the first post on the humble pocket notebook.

Digital Morning Pages Again

For over a year now I’ve been writing my morning pages by hand. At first the exercise was all about moving away from the growing stack of digital tools I was using. It was becoming tedious continually sitting at a screen so I started handwriting my morning pages.

The exercise itself forced me to slow down a bit more and practice my handwriting. It’s been going well and I’ve got a stack of full notebooks to show for it.

I use a Hobonichi Techo planner for logging a few things through the day and scheduling important meetings and work. It means I’m writing a lot more than I did in the past, and the time I’m spending on writing is growing. If I had no client work on then it wouldn’t be a problem, but I’m doing client work most days.

Whether my morning pages are handwritten or typed, I’m know that I’m still getting the value out of my morning pages, but the time taken to type my morning pages is much shorter than handwriting them. To that end I’m typing my morning pages again on 750words.com.

I started this morning with a weekly review and will be using it just like I did with my handwritten morning pages, focusing on a particular topic for each day and just writing.

I love using pen and paper where I can. It’s portable and flexible. There comes a point though when the digital alternative has clearer benefits and it’s definitely the case here.

North American Holidays

Autumn in Toronto

There’s a lot of things I love about living in the UK. Beautiful scenery within an easy drive, great golf courses, bearable weather through the winter and easy access to the continent for holidays. There are lots of other benefits as well, some important, some not so important. There’s one thing though that I envy North America for and it’s already started this year.

It begins at the start of October and runs right through to the end of December. It’s the mix of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas all running one after the other. They all coincide with each other whether you’re American or Canadian. The order might be different for Canadians, but they still celebrate Thanksgiving within this period.

We visited Jennifer’s parents in October a number of years ago. It was the first week in October and people had already started decorating their houses with pumpkins, lights and other decorations celebrating the time of the harvest and the ghoulish night at the end of the month. It was great to see so many homes making a big effort to decorate their homes.

Then there is Thanksgiving. As you know the UK doesn’t have any holiday like this. We have Guy Fawkes night on the 5th of November but I would gladly trade it for Thanksgiving day. The family around the table for a big meal and the NFL on the television through the afternoon and evening.

Finally there’s the run up to the end of it all. Christmas. We’ve spent a couple of Christmases in Canada and both we’re great, although I have to say it was much more fun with the kids around.

At Christmas as well there are a lot of houses decorated with lights and they definitely go into in a bigger way than we do in the UK.

We’ve got neighbours with relatives in Canada as well and with this common ground, the conversation at this time of year inevitably falls back to how it’s better in North America at this time of the year.

It’s not about any one particular holiday, just the fact that there’s so much happening during this time of year and it also coincides with a favourite of mine, the NFL season.

Was I born in the wrong country? Probably. Jennifer often jokes that I would be more at home living in North American than in the UK.

I would love to experience the whole run of holidays through the autumn and winter but it would mean a major upheaval of the family. For now though, I’ll just quietly be envious on this side of the pond.

Grass Roots Productivity - Do the Work

This is it. The last part of the Grass Roots Productivity process. Doing the work. Unfortunately there’s no quick fixes or hacks to this one. You either do the work or you don’t.

It doesn’t need to be as black and white as that though. There are things you can do to help you have a productive day. I always come back to Peter Bregman’s book, 18 minutes. He has a simple rule for getting something done.

If you really want to get something done, decide when and where you are going to do it.

18 minutes by Peter Bregman

When you decide where and when you’re going to do something you add structure to your day. This structure leads to a plan day for the day is more manageable. If you’re like me then the location will rarely change for most of your work. Time though is one thing that’s a big impact on our day. So decide when you want to do a task so that you can split your day into more manageable chunks.

I’ve tried in the past to pick off items from the top of the list at the start of the day. This is the wrong thing to do. It often leads to confusion and the wrong things getting done at the wrong time. I’ve learned now that scheduling actions into my calendar ahead of time is a better way to get things done.

Doing the work is all about self discipline and honesty.

Discipline yourself so that you do the work set before you. Schedule in your calendar the tasks that matter. For every one task that needs to be done, there’s four other that could be done. Never mind the other four and focus on the one.

And when it comes to reviewing your progress, be honest with yourself. If you could have done better then aim to improve your work and your progress on the next block of work.

This is the step where many people falter when it comes to using a process, but only you can make it work. So do yourself a favour and do the work.

Grass Roots Productivity - Regular Reviewing

We’ve looked at capturing and scheduling already in my little productivity process. The next step (not in order though) is the review.

For hundreds of years travellers have used different navigation techniques. The stars, maps, compasses and now the trusty smartphone can even help us get to our destination.

How do you get to the goals that you are working towards though? Completing the items on your master list is one thing, but it’s all for nothing if there isn’t a goal to work towards. Most of us can remember to do the little things without the aid of an ongoing list to help us. If you’re keeping a track of your master list though, then you are most likely working towards a goal. How will you know though if you’re working towards that goal and making progress?

If the goal is the destination then the review step is our compass that steers us towards that goal. A regular review will help you ensure that you’re making progress towards an that goal.

My review process involves three stages.

1. Clearing the decks

In this stage I work through each of my various inboxes and convert any items into actionable tasks. It might be emails in my inbox, tasks on my CRM, or items I’ve captured in my notebook. I use this stage to bring everything together into my master list.

2. Review projects

I use the term project to review any amount of work that involves ongoing work. It might be generating content for my blogs, client work, or work for DailyMuse. This is where I review the progress of each project and ensure that I’m making progress towards it. 

3. Planning ahead

Now that I know the progress made in the previous week or month, I can look ahead and plan for a similar timeframe. This involves scheduling actions into my calendar and setting reminders for the important ones.

Only my freelance work gets reminders as this is more important than most of my other projects.


And that’s all there is to it. I find it best to block off an hour a week to do my weekly review and three hours a month to do my monthly review. Done on a regular basis, the review step will help ensure that I’m working towards my goals.

Grass Roots Productivity - Smarter Scheduling

We’ve got a list of actions from a few days of capturing. Now what do we do? We schedule. And not by just putting whatever we want to do in any free space on our calendar. We schedule by putting the right tasks in at the right time.

Take a moment to look back at the last few days or even weeks of work you have done. When do you peak and when you do you plummet?

I work better in the morning. It’s during this time that I like to work on more creative tasks. Building new features, sketching screens and of course wrditing. For these types of tasks, this is when I am at my sharpest.

In the afternoon I prefer to work on more problem-solving tasks. Debugging, refactoring and general problem solving through code. I find this type of work less intensive than creative work so I prefer to do this in the afternoon.

How you work is down to you. But you need to be able to identify when you’re most productive. It’s important to ensure that you are scheduling the right tasks in at the right times. Dropping tasks in your calendar is going to lead to unproductive days.

Now that you know when it’s the right time to do the right tasks, you can start scheduling those tasks in. I’ve tried many ways of partitioning my day but the one for me that sticks the most is being able to work in 1 hour blocks. 50 minutes of work with a ten minute break. It’s almost same as the Pomodoro Technique, I just opt to work in longer chunks of time.

I also only schedule in tasks that take no more than an hour. When it comes to any kind of work I break down tasks into one hour chunks of work so that I’m focused on one thing at a time. Once a task is complete I can move onto the next task for the next hour.

Scheduling is an important part the productivity process. Done right, it will help you work through the right tasks at the right time and give you the sense of making progress. And that’s what being productive is all about.