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

2 thoughts on “One Notebook or Many? Part 4: What’s been working for me

  1. Steve,
    I enjoyed reading your series on the case of journaling with just one notebook or many, which I heard about from the Notebook Stories website which I am a fan of.

    I appreciate your inside take on keeping several journals versus just one and why it works or doesn’t. You certainly reveal life as multi-dimensional and how there is more than one way to approach journaling in all those dimensions. It truly is a custom fit; and sometimes you have to change things up and experiment to see what works.

    I have chosen your post, One Notebook or Many? Part 4: What’s Been Working for Me, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 1/24/12 for all things journaling on Twitter.
    I will post a link on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in Refresh Journal, my weekly e-journal:

    You’re welcome to join us for #JournalChat Live on Thursdays at 5 EST/2 PST for all things journaling on Twitter; this week’s topic is Your Journaling: Checking In.

    Thanks again for this interesting and insightful inside view with how many journals or notebooks to use.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    JournalWriter Freelance
    Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter


  2. Hello, a little bit of latecomer here, just wanted to add my thoughts.

    I’m a college student and been journalling on and off since I was a kid. I began seriously about 2009 and keeping up.

    I began with a Moleskine softcover pocket, as “it is the way Moleskine’s used!”, such a perfectionist fool I was.

    The thing is, I like to experiment and I like stationary stuff so much. So came the large sized Moleskines, Cahiers, pocket size volants, etc.

    My current system is two large and two pocket size Moleskine’s. One pocket is my “mind book”, just to jot down what I do, feel, see, etc. to empty my mind, and a large one is for more calm, “take your time” kind of journalling. I keep a second large Moleskine for business stuff, projects, ngo meeting notes and another pocket size for inspirational quotes, self-notes, etc.

    I take both pocket journals to everywhere, I jot down nearly everything into appropriate one. Large journal comes with me to extended stays, travels and “workbook” to appropriate meetings only. I tried to downsize, but small ones do not provide enough space to get “deep” and I can’t carry large ones everywhere.

    Kinda’ complicated, but it works for now.



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