Taking Note

Since upgrading to paper is all the rage amongst us technocrats these days, I have seen many a blog post elsewhere about note taking systems, hacks and other useful ideas. Therefore, in order to add to the banter, here is the way I have been using my Moleskine notebook and the evolution of my note/list system.
I largely use my Moleskine as what I refer to as my Core Dump. This is the “inbox for the stuff in my head”. Basically, anything that is floating in my mental RAM gets dumped into the acid free pages of my notebook. Most of these items are to-do type action items (Get Dog Food, Organize Monthly Bills, etc.) but some of these items are not. Some could be ideas, quotes, things I want to post to the blog, telephone numbers, etc. Then, as the actions get performed and the other items appropriately processed I mark them off as such. While this may sound simple enough, it kind of started off a little clunky. The actual method I started using is nothing like the way it is now. Like any good system, the more I have been using it the more it has evolved to better fit my needs. Here is how that evolution unfolded.
System v.1
I started out dividing up each of two facing pages. The left hand page would be for non to-do items. The right hand page for to-do items. This worked well enough for a while. The non to-do section was like scratch paper. The to-do section had dashes before the items to delineate them and, as items were completed, I placed a check mark on the right hand side of the item in a different color (preferably red). I did this so that the checks would stand out and the “open loops” would be readily apparent to me.
The first problem with this system… I was always forgetting to use a red pen for the checkmarks. Therefore, the ones I marked a check next to with a regular pen constantly caught my eye as a non-completed item when doing a quick scan of a page. It did not stand out enough. So I came up with this…
– Non Completed Item
+ Completed item
In other words, action items still have a “dash” that proceeds and, thusly, separates each item. When the item is complete, I draw a vertical line through the “dash” thus making it resemble a “plus”. This makes the dashed items stand out quite well despite the fact that the same color pen is used.
System v.2
I went with this for a while. Same page layout but with a different to-do/action item marking system as described above. But there was still something not quite right. It took me a while to put my finger on it but when I did it seemed so simple that I almost kicked myself for not getting it right away. I was making things more complex and convoluted than they needed to be.
See, many of the non to-do items actually had to be processed as well. For instance, an address or telephone number needed to be entered into my contact database. Passwords needed to be entered into my password manager. Blog ideas needed to be posted. Web sites bookmarked… You get the idea. In other words, these were action items too. This was not readily apparent to me but there they were. Therefore, why am I separating these items? Why am I using two separate pages. Why not just mark these items down and treat them like the action item they really are?
System v.3
I now have all items, no matter what they are, as action items to be processed. They follow the same dash/plus system as mentioned above. When any item is processed beyond the boundaries of the page it is marked as such and separated by date. It looks something like this:
– Get Dog Food and treats for Roy
– Prepare proposal for new Mac purchases
+ Blog Idea: My note taking/to-do system
– Doctor’s appointment to Calendar
+ Call Tom Miller re: Dinner
        • 612-555-5555
– Deposit Check
You get the idea. This not only is more user friendly but also gives me a kind of daily journal of my activities. Even though it may seem only slightly different than when I started, I am much happier and more productive with this version of the system. Proof that even the smallest changes can have a powerful impact.
Other Tweaks
There are a couple of other Moleskine Hacks that I employ. I do use a Post-it™ index tab to mark the page I am currently at because while the built in ribbon page marker is quaint I find it not as efficient. I also keep some small Post-it™ notes (the 2 inch square size) on the inside back cover near opposite of the pocket so that I may have somewhere to write a note to pass to someone else.
Future Needs
No system is ever perfect and this one is no exception. I would like to come up with and easy and non obtrusive way to mark the date I process or complete an item. These do not always get done on the date that they are listed under ( I never claimed to be as productive as my obsession with productivity would dictate).
As always, I am interested to hear of other peoples systems and tips, tricks and tweaks. Feel free to post them in the comments if you have them.

One thought on “Taking Note”

  1. re: Future Needs: Perhaps you could use Moleskine hyperlinks to link to the day that you complete an item. If you have more than one day on a page, you could use a, b, c, etc. to differentiate. So, if you have
    -Get dog food and treats for Roy
    on page 35 (you do number your pages, right??) then when you complete the task a week later (5-3-06, second date on page 42) you make the 4-26 task look like this
    -Get dog food and treats for Roy ->42b
    If you write the task down when you complete it on 5-3, then you might also hyperlink back to when you first wrote it down. If you do this though, it seems like you are doing two separate things: tracking NAs and keeping a journal of accomplished NAs. I’m not sure if it would be much use to you, but you could also consider keeping a separate tracking of the two. So, you could keep a journal (I use a small ruled Moleskine) of what you get accomplished in a given day (much like GOD from board.43folders does) and hyperlink those tasks to the capture date in your other book.
    Overall, it seems like you are doing at least two (but I say three) things. You are capturing information throughout the day. You are tracking NAs. And you are tracking completion dates for NAs. I could also add processing into this. It strikes me that perhaps you are trying to capture and then act, without processing in the middle. So, your capture bucket is becoming your NA list, and that can get really messy. If you use your notebook *only* as a capture device, you wouldn’t really need to track the completion date if you are keeping on top of your weekly reviews; it should all be processed by at least then, if not sooner. So capture->process->track->act. I don’t think these can all be done in the same book (without multiple sections of course). HTH.

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