One Notebook or Many? Part 4: What’s been working for me

One notebook, many notebooks, or something else? This is something that has had me thinking in circles for a long time. Should I have one notebook, and record everything in that, or different notebooks for different subjects, or something else?

To give others something to chew on as they make choices for themselves, I’ve written a multi-part series on the virtues of different systems from my point of view. This final part of the series is about what’s been working for me – what books I’m using for what.

The main journal. I’ve used a variety of books for this, from accountant’s record books, to pocket size Moleskines to my current 5×8 Leuchtturm1917. I’ve got a Master sized Leuchtturm1917 waiting to be tried next, along with a few others. I really like the dot grid format over line grid or lines. My next favorite would be blank. My main use for the dots is really only to keep my writing from getting too big, otherwise I’d be fine with blank pages. I don’t use the pocket much, except for receipts and business cards occasionally. I do use the band and ribbon, however.

General ideas. I’ve tried to keep a separate Ideas journal, but I just never remember to bring it. The main journal works well for this.

Work versus personal. For a long time I kept work and personal stuff separate. Then I got tired of carrying two books, and put everything in one book. Then one day I was at a conference, and I left my notebook on a table. Someone returned it to me, but the thought of someone from the business world reading through my personal stuff gave me pause. I decided it that if I was keeping one book, it was a personal book and I’d better think of it that way. In some professions and some companies, any business notes may be considered business property, another thing to consider when mixing the two subjects in one book.

For a several trips I just carried a small Cahier or Volant style notebook, and that worked fairly well because they’re small and I didn’t have to worry about losing them. A notebook that fits in a jacket pocket is a lot easier to keep track of. The common 5×8 size will generally fit an outside suitcoat pocket, but it’s not a nice fit.

The problem with a book that is kept only for a few days is that later on I can never remember that there is a little notebook that has entries between entries in my larger journals. I suppose I could make an entry stating that, but I never remember. So I ended up writing less because I felt like it was going to end up in a black hole.

Using GTD with blank sheets and file folders, there’s not much left to put in a work journal very little anymore. I’ve started just keeping the few notes I need to in my personal book, since most of them aren’t critical to the business. Real notes on specific projects end up on letter size sheets and in the proper folder.

Food. Keeping a food diary is a vital part of managing a diet. I found that food diary entries take up a lot of space, and have little reference value. The value in making them is in the making of them. A separate book works better for this, and I’m using a Moleskine Cahier in pocket size.

Software projects. When they get big enough, like, need a separate book. The reference value is so high it’s too painful to have it spread across many journals. As I think of new features to add or changes to make, I’m usually not in a place to make them. When I am I need it all in a single place so I can process them efficiently. I’ve used large Cahiers and large hardcover Moleskines for this. Both work fine.

Music. I have been learning several musical instruments for a long time, and I’ve made the most progress on the Irish tin whistle. It might be easier to just print music out than write it in a notebook, but it’s easier to carry a small notebook than a bunch of sheets of music. It is tedious to copy tunes into it, and it takes some art to make them look good. But the result is a very handy collection, and one that has a strong asthetic vibe to it. Using a Moleskine pocket size music book.

Weight, body measurements, and other log-type items. These fit best in a weekly planner from Moleskine, where I record the basics. I used to put them in my journal, but like food entires it took up a lot of space and was tedious to get through when reviewing old journals. The pre-printed dates actually prod me to record the entries – the idea of wasting the book by leaving it blank gets to me. The one week per page format gives me just enough space to record some stats, and the facing notes page allows me to record things that strike me as needing to be recorded.

Exercise records. I’ve actually put this online, when I’m actually getting off my lazy ass and working out, and works well. Before I discovered daily mile I used an iPhone app, and before that used a one page per day planner. That got to be a lot of writing, at least when I do weight training, because I had to write the names of the exercises I was doing.

Blogging/business ideas. This one is a real struggle. Sometimes it makes sense to treat it like a defined project, so it fits into GTD territory. Other times I’m musing a brainstorming and just writing ideas, and it fits best in a journal. Other times I really wish I’d kept everything in once place so I could go back to it more easily – a vote for a separate book. This is one area where I think the table of contents would help out, like that in the Leuchtturm1917 books I’m using now.

Woodworking projects & sketches. I’ve been using a large Moleskine sketchbook for this, and it’s been a good book, but it’s getting full. Part of me wants to keep them in the journal, if for no other reason that the asthetics of having sketches and drawings. I also think it might encourage me to sketch more. But sometimes a project, like the revised hanging desk, may be mulitple sketches over a few days. In the journal they’d be broken up by journal entries. Not really a problem if the book has page numbers and I can make “started on page, continued on page” notes to provide continuity. A book full of projects and sketches is neat in its own way as well. Thankfully I don’t have to make up my mind on this one yet.

Birds. This is a Moleskine pocket Volant, and given how little opportunity I get to go birding, it’s working fine.

House. When we bought our first house, the idea was to keep house-specific stuff, like window measurements, and sizes of rooms, etc. in it so when we needed, say, drapes, it would all be there waiting for us. It hasn’t worked out. We hardly look at it, write in it, or use it.

Mileage/Car. The idea here was to record each fill-up and maintenance item. I kept it up for a while, in a pocket Moleskine hardcover squared book, but then took a few years off. Maintenance never made it in, and the book, despite being kept in the door pocket, is in terrible shape. This could/should have been a Cahier. I don’t think it would be a good idea to make these entries in the journal, however.

Separate book vs. in the journal. I’ve found that unless the new book has a very strong purpose (like the NumberQuotes notebook) or has a specific place in my life and routine (weekly planner), it’s at risk of being abandoned. The food journal hasn’t quite become a reliable partner yet, but the birds book has. The weekly planner has become very important, and I record some things there that could be in my journal. Despite many attempts to find an electronic replacement for my weight records, pen and paper have proven to be the best and most reliable.

If the work has a lot of structure, and clear boundaries, a separate book seems to work best. If the work is somewhat amorphous, a separate book just doesn’t feel right. For example, I just used the large Leuchtturm1917 Jottbook I received to start a web-focused notebook, only ideas and thoughts related to my various websites that don’t have books of their own, or for ideas (like selling ad space) that are common to all sites. That lasted a short while before the book become refocused on this blog. So far, it’s been earning its keep.

What’s been working for you?

All posts in the series:
One Notebook or Many? Part 1: The case for one notebook
One Notebook or Many? Part 2: The case for many notebooks
One Notebook or Many? Part 3: The case for loose sheets
One Notebook or Many? Part 4: What’s been working for me

Portrait Progress

As part of my effort to get back to drawing I’ve started making sketches of snapshots I take of the girls. Originally the plan was to take a new snap every day, and then try to sketch it in 5-10 minutes or less. The goal is to learn to draw a fairly recognizable likeness quickly.

I’ve done three so far, and I believe I’ve made a little progress:

This was the first attempt. Ginny (on the right) looks particularly scary!

The second attempt, of Riley, I think was better. Bordering on recognizable, but still not very good. the eyes are passable for now, but the area around her mouth is a mess. This one looks more youthful than the other two, and I’m not sure why that is.

This last attempt was better yet in some respects. The eyes are marginally better than the last one, but I got the position of the head wrong. She also looks way too old, and I don’t know what it is that makes her look old. Her face also looks flat. I’m guessing that is shading and not the shape of the outline. Of the three, I spent the least time on this one. It was also done in my main journal instead of a pocket Moleskine sketchbook like the other two, and there is some extraneous graphite smudges from the facing page.

Getting Back To Drawing

I want my journals to be more visual. While I learn a lot about myself from journalling, and it’s helped me achieve a lot, I also want my journals to be interesting to look at later in live – more like a photo album.

I know the basics of sketching from my years as an engineer. I can draw basic orthoganol drawings, isometric, perspective, etc. But when explaining to someone how a piece of machinery would be laid out, there wasn’t much need to draw kids I wouldn’t have for 10 years, plants or other bits of scenery.

So if I want my journals to be more visual, and I’m not going to turn them into scrapbooks, then I need to get better at drawing. I started out with Edward’s classic Drawing on the Right Side of the brain. It is a good book. I know that if I did the exercises as suggested, I would get better. The problem is that they are pretty heavy. A frequent requirement is an hour to an hour and a half of uninterrupted time. I’ve got three kids below the age of 7 – an hour of uninterrupted time usually comes while I’m sleeping. Still, I tried  them – first back in ’06, and again recently. I ran into the time crunch and decided to look for a book with some simpler exercises.

That lead me to You Can Draw in 30 Days: The Fun, Easy Way to Learn to Draw in One Month or Less
(affiliate link). I’m on lesson 20, and it’s working pretty well. I don’t imagine I will be using what I’ve learned directly, but I’ve gotten less rusty and more confident. Not as good as I need to be, but better. The Kindle version has worked fine for me.

Another thing I’m doing is to try to take a quick snapshot of my daughters each day as I walk them to school, and then spend 5-10 minutes to sketch the photo off my iPhone. I’m hoping that I will increase my ability to get down basic shapes quickly. I’ve done two, and I think i see improvement so far.

I’ve also gotten the book Sketching People (affiliate link), and it has some interesting exercises for learning gestures, but I haven’t dug into the exercises yet.

Here are the top 4 things I’ve learned so far:

  • Drawing is like most other manual skills. Some of it is “like riding a bicycle”, but much of it needs to be maintained. Drawing for short periods, frequently, produces the most growth.
  • Patience and quality go together. If I’m not willing to slow down to do shading properly, or clean up extra lines, then I’ve got to live with the results.
  • Details make a big difference. Lines that don’t quite line up, shading that isn’t smooth or the right shape, sloppy corners, etc. The list is endless. This is the hardest thing to get used to because for most of my life sketches were an explanitory tool accompanied by lots of talking. To stand on their own they need to be precise.
  • The materials used do make a difference. Really, it comes down to erasing. If I can erase without feeling like I’ve just dug a hole in the paper, then I’ll erase. Otherwise, I’ll try the “No, look at the thicker, clearly more correct line over here” method. Thicker paper, like the Stillman and Birn stuff, and softer pencils makes erasing the same spot several times a non-issue.

Papercoterie Jounal

One of the presents I unwrapped on Christmas morning was a journal my wife ordered for me from Papercoterie.


Papercoterie is a site where you can send in a design or photograph, and they make a book or calendar.

Susan got a book for everyone in the family, each with a photograph on the cover. This of course makes a great gift because of the personalization, but will real pen lovers be impressed or satisfied with the paper?

The binding is sewn, has headbands, and lays flat. Like a Moleskine the first page of the book is glued to the flysheet (the loose half of the paper that is glued to the inside of the cover) so it will be annoying to write on, but it’s hard to mark the book down for that when Moleskine and others do the same thing. There is a placeholder ribbon.

All pages are lined with 6mm ruling. There are no page numbers. There is 20mm between the ruling and the binding, and 9mm between the ruling and the outside edge of the page. The top and bottom ruling lines are thicker. There are 80 pages. The papercoterie site provides little info on the paper, other than stating it is 50% recycled. This is a competently bound book which should be easy to write in, and the ruling is a common size and is purposefully laid on the page.

Fountain pens feel pretty good on the paper. Not as glassy smooth as Rhodia, and maybe a hair more tooth than a typical Moleskine. No feathering that I could see. The paper is white. My Pelikan M800 in EF was pleasant to use, and my Namiki fine was also nice. With the ruling this book has I suspect most will be using wider nibs.

DSC_0153.NEF DSC_0155.NEF

A 1-2 second pause didn’t bleed through with my pens, but a few mm diameter circle colored continuously for 10 seconds not only bled but through the sheet behind and onto the third. The same exercise with the same pen produced the same results on Rhodia paper. A 5-second circle didn’t touch the sheet behind, but did show through to the other side. My conclusion here is that if those writing with nibbed firehoses may be disappointed, but the rest of us will be satisfied. I’m surprised that this paper is more opaque than most, which is a nice surprise.

This book is clearly aimed at the mainstream user, who will probably not be using fountain pens. Fair enough, as it’s being sold as a memento and gift more than hardworking notebook. Still, it’s more competent than many journals found in bookshops, and has a personalized cover to boot. I think most serious users would find the book more than usable.

What will I use mine for? I think I might just do what the cover says, and write down the adventures I have with the girls.

One Notebook or Many? Part 3: The case for loose sheets

One notebook, many notebooks, or something else? This is something that has had me thinking in circles for a long time. Should I have one notebook, and record everything in that, or different notebooks for different subjects, or something else?

To give others something to chew on as they make choices for themselves, I’ve written a multi-part series on the virtues of different systems from my point of view. This part is about the advantages of using loose sheets of paper instead of notebooks.

Loose sheets are simple but effective. That’s probably why David Allen recommends them in his book Getting Things Done. When I started using David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology for my personal life, I started out trying to use index cards and notebooks. It just didn’t work. Finally I duplicated the system that worked so well at the office and I started keeping file folders for projects and using letter-sized sheets. I’ve been using that for a while and it works well enough that I even considered going to blank sheets (or maybe dot grid) for everything, even my journal.

The best paper comes in loose sheets. I can get whatever kind of paper I want, in whatever color or weight. I can mix blank sheets and various kinds of ruling. Nearly any paper that is made is available in reams and is not too expensive. I could vary colors or styles to suit the purpose or provide additional categorization. Letter size sheets are everywhere, so if I’m not picky in a pinch I can just ask for a few sheets from the hotel if I run out while traveling, or just rely on their supply.

There’s a ton of accessories designed to work with letter sized sheets, including folders, envelopes, luggage, cabinets, etc. Whatever you need, someone makes it and you can probably buy it locally.

A simple blank sheet always fits the environment. They are more business oriented than a small notebook might seem to be, and since they’re blank to start with there’s no risk of inadvertently sharing personal thoughts with anyone.

Blank sheets are versatile and adaptable. Since it’s not part of a book, it doesn’t have a dedicated purpose. The paper can be used for anything – I can write a letter, leave a note, give it to my daughters to draw on, or fold it into an airplane. This is especially useful when traveling, because it means I carry less.

Content and organization are separated. I can decide how to organize later. If I fill a sheet with a mix of ideas and journaling, I can make a copy and have it in two places. I can carry just the past few weeks of journaling with me, and archive the rest at home. Making copies of any material is far easier with loose sheets as well, so backups become a real possibility. Business and personal can be mixed when it makes sense, and then separated when it doesn’t. I can bring the notes from the last 5 product meetings without being the notes from my performance review.

All posts in the series:
One Notebook or Many? Part 1: The case for one notebook
One Notebook or Many? Part 2: The case for many notebooks
One Notebook or Many? Part 3: The case for loose sheets
One Notebook or Many? Part 4: What’s been working for me

The Leuchtturm1917 Master Dots Notebook

When I opened the box from Kikkerland Design, the importer of Leuchtturm1917 notebooks, and found this Master Dots Notebook, I was surprised at it’s size even though the rational side of my brain already knew the dimensions. 8.75″ by 12.5″ sounds only a little larger than a letter sized sheet, but that extra inch and a half in height makes a big difference.


Inside the book is identical to their large size – same 5mm dot pattern and same size page numbers. The cover is the same thickness, but the paper is a bit heavier (100gsm vs. 80gsm), which makes the book 1/8″ thicker, and a little floppier than I expected. I’m not sure I’d want heavier covers, as the book is already pretty imposing.


As you can see, the vast acreage waiting to be filled makes the large size seem small. I know what they say about guys who drive really big trucks, and I hope they don’t say the same things about guys who use large notebooks 😎 This is not a book for those who want to carry it in a pocket, but if you need the ability to hold letter (or A4) size sheets without folding, or want to be able to paste them onto pages, this is the book for you.

At the moment I’m suffering ENIS(1), but I’ll get over it soon.

ENIS: Empty Notebook Intimidation Syndrome: A common affliction where the sufferer is intimidated by the pristinity of a brand-new empty notebook. Temptations to use the new notebook are squashed by the fear of rendering the book forever un-new by sullying it with unworthy scribbles.

Stillman and Birn – Some Observations On Pencil And Pen

Stillman and Birn sent me some of their books to try, and here are my observations after some brief but purposeful use. I’m not an artist nor an art student. I just like to draw from time to time, and recently I decided to try to take my skills a bit further. That and journaling form my perspective in comparing these books.

Stillman and Birn offers three kinds of paper:

180lb paper with a rough surface, suitable for mixed media is used in the Beta and Delta books.

100lb paper with a vellum surface is used in the Alpha and Gamma books

100lb paper with a plate (very similar to a ‘wove’ surface) surface in the Epsilon book.

I used the following:

Pencil: Palomino Blackwing, Pentel HB and 2B, Musgrave Unigraph 2H

Pen: Namiki Vanishing Point in fine, with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black, Pelikan M800 in extra fine (writes more like a fine) with Private Reserve Midnight Blues.

For fountain pens, I found the Epsilon was best, followed by Beta, and then Alpha. Epsilon is like a brand-new asphalt road. Very smooth and flat. Beta is like an older asphalt road – one that gets little traffic but was laid on a poor base. It’s lumpy and the car lurches up and down, but there’s no tire noise or steering jitter. The texture of the Beta paper wasn’t scratchy, although there’s clearly more feedback than with Epsilon. Alpha is like a brand-new concrete road, where they give it a rough surface for poor weather traction. Flat, but lots of tire noise – a rough surface. I found writing with a Namiki fine point, or fine point gel pens to be scratchy. Not unwritable, and the line quality was comparable to the others, just not very pleasant.

For graphite, Alpha was the surface that did best from a line-quality and performance perspective. Next was Epsilon, then Beta. My simplistic shading test left me with the impression that Alpha would be more forgiving of bad technique. I simply colored the left side of a box, and then using a stomp tried to blend the shading to the right:


Above is the Epsilon. You can see where my original vertical strokes are, even after blending with a stomp.


This is the Beta. The absence of blending here is more my fault than the paper’s – started blending the dark band on the left, and did so too long before trying to blend to the right.


And finally the Alpha. What caught my eye was that the texture of the shading seemed to be more consistent with the Alpha. The density of the shading is more reflective of technique – or lack of. I think all the papers could shade well with good technique.

I found Alpha to lower the apparent grade of a pencil by about 2 grades – an HB lead on Alpha writes about the same as 2B on Epsilon. It also seemed to consume graphite faster. Epsilon was more pleasant to write on, and was more compatible with the grades I prefer for other papers. The Epsilon paper isn’t as smooth as Moleskine or Leuchtturm1917 paper, and it lowers apparent pencil hardness by maybe as much as a grade.

I haven’t yet tried anything wet, but I did try both pen and pencil on the Beta and found it was not very pleasant for me with Pencil – I don’t care for the crayony look it gave the pencils I typically use, although harder lead looked better. For fountain pen it was smoother than I expected, and I’d rather write on Beta with the Namiki fine than on Alpha. With the M800 it felt like many resume/high-end office papers. Another item in the Beta’s favor was the lack of transparency. Both the Alpha and Epsilon are somewhat transparent. Not enough to read what is on the other side, but definitely enough to know something is there. On the Beta I couldn’t see it. I’m not very sensitive to this, and it’s far less than with thinner papers, but I mention it because I know some folks are very particular. I think the Beta is the only book I’ve ever seen that is fully opaque. Its paper is thick and tough, and while this makes a really sturdy book it also hits page count, which is a big issue for journaling.

They all seemed to erase about the same. White plastic erasers did the best, followed by kneadable and then the harder rubber style. In all cases the paper didn’t seem to be affected.

So where am I with this? Still trying them out, since I’ve only filled a few pages or so in each. But, right now the choice would be between the Epsilon and Alpha. The trade-off is either poorer pen feel and the need for harder pencils on the Alpha, or slightly lesser pencil performance on the Epsilon. If I knew I was going to use both pen and pencil, it would be Epsilon. Especially if I would be writing very much as the smoother paper is more pleasant to write on.

However, for sketching in pencil, Alpha is clearly the better paper and I enjoy using it. I’m not sure I can articulate all of why I like using it so much, and I’m not convinced the difference in book size – my Epsilon is 5×8, the Alpha is 8.5×11 – isn’t clouding my feelings, but the alpha seems better enough that I would consider a book just for that.

Last but not least, my experience with these books so far confirms what I thought when I unwrapped them – there’s nothing else out there like these. The paper is heavier and nicer than anything commonly available, and certainly anything available in a bound book. They cost a bit more than the alternatives, but at the rate I would fill books like these, it’s not much to pay for a whole lot more book.

As I said, I’m still checking them out – more to follow!