Super Simple GTD Approach For Traveler’s Notebook

How to get GTD functionality into the traveler’s notebook format? I could use an entire notebook, and many people have documented approaches to that. Patrick Ng has some really nuce lether tabs he uses in a notebook. Or, I could try something simpler.

In my former system I used a sheet of paper for each project and treated each sheet as a kind of log to keep notes and define the next action. Id then transfer those next actions to a single sheet organized by a few contexts. That sheet would be folded and kept in a pocket. The idea was that the project sheet forms a record of the project, while the next action list became an inbox as well.

I can’t recall ever using the project sheets for reference, so do I really need them? I decided to see if I could live with just a simple project list, which would be far easier to carry around me. I checked the book to see if Allen had anything to say about it, and indeed he mentions simple lists as an acceptable method.

So I took a piece of 100+ lb cover stock, folded it into thirds, and slipped it into the center of a notebook. Then did the same with a regular sheet of paper. The cover stock is the project list, and the second sheet is the next action list. I can add or cross off projects as I need to and replace the sheet when it gets too full or too beat up.

The next action has six sides which lend themselves to contexts, and so they were labeled.

I like:

  • Easy to find. The thing about traveler’s style notebooks is that the center of each book has an automatic bookmark.
  • Know where to find it.
  • Doesn’t get all beat up so easily.
  • Gives me an excuse to carry the notebook everywhere.
  • Cheap and easy to make.

I don’t like:

  • Too easy to ignore. While the center of a notebook is easy to find, it’s not usually where my focus is. When I use this kind of notebook I get used to ignoring the notebook’s tendancy to flop open to the center. Which is where the list is.
  • I hate feeling like I have to carry the notebook everywhere.
  • Slow to use. While standing in a store aisle, or wherever, a paper list is easy to pull out and add to. The notebook (particularly one loaded with stuff) is harder.

I used it for a while, and it worked ok but I don’t have as much confidence in it as my old system so I’ve actually gone back to my old system. However, for many I think this will be a good solution.

Living With A Traveler’s Notebook

I’ve written about the Midori traveler’s notebook before, and I’ve been resisting buying one of these notebooks for a long time. I’ve been perfectly happy with my very large Leuchtturm1917 master dots notebook, but the simple leather lifestyle is very compelling. As I saw reference after reference to the growing cult group of Traveler’s Notebook aficionados, not to mention their Flickr feed, I got this growing feeling that I was missing something and started to crack.

I’d made some leather covers in the past – the poor man’s Midori – but they didn’t captivate me. I made them a different size, and I started thinking that maybe part of the Midori Magic is the size.

Still not willing to spend $60 on less than a square foot of leather, I decided I’d order some refills and make a cover to fit them. So on a Thursday I ordered three refills from, and I received them on Saturday – pretty darn fast service considering they were shipped via regular mail.

In the mean time I made a cover to fit the correct width, but letter height (it’s only a 1/4 inch more than A4), and sewed a few pamphlets to go inside. Also, sometime in there I found Patrick Ng’s awesome photos, and they stoked the flames a bit as well.

So despite that I love my Leuchtturm1917 Master Dots notebook, I’ve decided to try to live the Traveler’s Notebook Lifestyle for a while. Here’s my observations so far:

  • It fits in a jacket pocket. I’ve been using not-jacket sized books for so long that I’d forgotten how nice it is to have a book that fits.

  • It’s nice to have multiple books in one cover. I like to keep work separate from personal, and I’ve replaced the pocket weekly planner from Moleskine with this Midori insert.
  • I haven’t gotten into all the embellishments. It’s a little girly for me and the people I work with. But I might crack yet.
  • I haven’t traveled with the book yet, but on my recent trip to Russia my latest Midori clone got used because it fit on the airline tray table where the Master sized book would barely fit closed.

  • Two inserts is fine, three still works, four starts to become a problem for the first or last one in terms of being able to write comfortably. BUT, for having a past journal in for reference, the first position would be fine.
  • I cannot imagine having both card sleeves and the zip pocket in a book with multiple inserts.
  • I never got into the paper planner habit. By the time I needed a calendar, I was using outlook, and it’s been the standard for me ever since. That might inhibit my adoption of this system.
  • The idea of the leather aging, and becoming a symbol of experience, wisdom, and adventure is like a narcotic. I can see why people are addicted to these and other leather books. I’ve actually become a little obsessive about it. I put wax or oil on the first several covers I’ve made, but on the latest one I used just a little conditioner, to get more honest aging. It doesn’t take much wax to make leather quite scuff resistant. On the other hand, raw vegetable tanned leather is not a very attractive color, and it can take a while to lose that flesh tone.
    I want the dark brown color, but I haven’t a good experience with dye so far.
    The refillable nature of the notebook just enhances the idea of it becoming this indestructible and reliable old friend.
  • I put four ribbon bookmarks in the book and at first they looked silly. Now I’m thinking they’re awesome, and I’m thinking about using four colors instead of two.

  • The Midori sketchbook is a bit thick. I love the paper, but it adds a lot of bulk.I ultimately decided to give it the boot.


  • Making one’s own refills has a great air of self sufficiency and individualism – I’ve even ordered some bookbinding needles and thread to do a better job at it. It remains to be seen if it’s worth the expense and hassle, if the exact paper used isn’t an issue.
  • This kind of system is like a filofax – it’s supposed to become the center of one’s life. that means carrying it everywhere. Nice for sketching and jotting ideas, but a bit of a pain. The narrow format fits in coat pockets, but the thickness makes it look like I’m Dirty Harry packing a hogleg.
  • I used ~3mm leather for the cover I’m using, because that’s what I had. It’ll probably take a while to get limber.
  • It doesn’t lay flat, but it sort of does. It depends on which book in the stack you’re at, how the cover is sitting, and how limber the paper is. The thin-paper refill from Midori lays pretty flat. The sketchbook is at the other end of the spectrum.

The Leuchtturm and the Midor clone may live together. The new book has already replaced my old Moleskine planner that I use for tracking weight & exercise, and has enough space for some other things I’d like to add. That plus a sketchbook would be a useful combination. But for the time being I’ll leave it in the current configuration: Work notebook, journal, planner.

The poor man’s Midori Traveler’s Notebook

I don’t remember where I first saw the Midori notebook. But I remember thinking two things at the same time:

  1. Distressed leather is really cool.
  2. What an unusable size.

The leather finally won out and the other night as my mouse cursor hovered over the buy button on a vendor’s website, ready to send the better half of a c-note on a notebook and refills that smarter voice stopped me. “Surely you could make one!” The voice said. “Surely it would be cheaper!” The voice said.

So the next day I stopped by Tandy leather to pick up some leather. I’ve never worked with leather before, and I have to say its an enjoyable experience.

Of course, it comes in cow-shaped pieces, not nice rectangles:

I bought what was classed as 6/7 ounce vegetable tanned leather, which is about 4mm thick. Picking a nice piece is not easy. I can see why quality leather goods are so expensive. You really have to feel it, look at it, and bend it to see what it’s really like before you buy it.

But it was a simple matter to make a paper pattern, and use that to guide the knife around the leather. One of the reasons I made my own notebook was that the Midori size is just strange to me, and the half-letter size has a lot of convenience. I can see where the Midori would be a better fit (maybe) in an inside pocket, but I don’t wear jackets much.

So I made the pattern a simple rectangle 9.5″ x 12″. I think next time I would go to 12.5″, especially if I planned to use three books in the cover.

Once the piece was cut, I folded it to see how stiff the leather really was, and whether it would crease or not.

The lady at the leather store stopped me from buying anything but vegetable tanned leather because she said anything else wouldn’t take a fold. After trying, unsuccessfully to clarify whether it wouldn’t fold because it would crack, or whether it wouldn’t fold because it just wouldn’t take a crease, I decided to take her adamantly given advice and go with the veggie tanned leather. It took a crease just fine, and I probably didn’t even need to wet it, but did anyway. So, I wet the leather, matched corners, folded, and put a board and some weight on it for about an hour:

After letting it dry for a while, I used the crease as a guide to punch holes. About this time I realized I should have done things in a different order:

  1. Measure & cut leather
  2. Sand the rough side (this takes a much finer grade of sandpaper than you’d think. I used 220 grit and that was too coarse)
  3. Punch holes using a straight edge to ensure they end up in a straight line
  4. Fold the leather using the holes to position the crease
  5. Trim edges as necessary

Sanding the rough side of the leather to make it smooth was something I hadn’t even thought of until I noticed the back was really, really fuzzy. I used a random orbit sander and it took more time than I expected. I did it after I’d threaded the book with cord, so I couldn’t do the job properly, but it’s good enough.

Oh, well, this was a prototype anyway.

Then I took my elastic cord, purchased from the fabric store, and threaded it through the 4 holes, two at each end:

Five holes in the spine, four for the binding elastic, one for the band to hold it closed
The holes for the binding elastic were about 1/4" in from the end, and 1/2" apart

I made three trips through the holes, leaving three strands to use for notebooks. Then I used a square knot at one end. I’m not sure the knot’s going to hold.

For the band to hold the book shut, instead of a hole in the middle of the back cover (a very silly place to put it, in my mind) I put another hole in the middle of the spine. then I ran the cord through the hole, around the non-notebook holding strands, and back out. Another knot and Fin!

Well, not really. You see wet leather takes a really long time to dry. I learned that one should take some cheap paper, fold it, put it in the cover, then sandwich that between towels and put a bit of weight on it. Change paper every few hours or so. It takes a while, but until it’s really dry you’ll end up with soggy paper if you use it.

At first I left it completely unfinished, content to let the natural oils in my hands and the divine chaos of every day use to provide the desired patina. After a day or so of this I confronted the fact that I have no patience. I suppose I could have loaned it to some literary desperado to use during their adventures in the west, but desperados are hard to find, and riding in a Volvo doesn’t provide the kind of abuse that riding horseback used to.

I saddle soaped the cover, and then applied some beeswax finish I’d bought at the Walking Store. The the soap brought out a little character, and the wax darkened it a little. I can tell that getting the look I want will be a matter of time, but a lot of it.

Doing it yourself doesn’t save money

I spent about $60 at the leather store, but that included enough leather to make several covers and a 1/8″ punch.

Another $5 at Joann Fabrics getting elastic cord in black and some colors.

Last is the paper to go inside. I sewed some basic signatures out of Crane’s 24lb paper, and some Neenah Atlas bond in 20lb. My wonderful father has offered to make some books out of Strathmore Writing (my favorite paper). Moleskine Cahier notebooks in the large size fit just about right.

I spent $65 to get a $60 notebook, but for me this was preferable because I wanted the experience, the extra leather, and the ability to make it the size I wanted. Of course, answering the inevitable “What’s the leather for?” from my wife with “for your bustier. Where’s a bra I can use for a pattern?” was priceless, but I digress.

I love the feel of the book, and I like the idea of having multiple books in one cover. Not really thrilled with the size (a letter sheet folded in half) and that it doesn’t lay flat. But there’s a certain thingness to this sort of notebook, and I can see why people fork over $60 for one.

The thing about home made stuff for me is that there is a freedom to experiment. If I decide I’d rather use Midori inserts I can just cut the cover down to size. If I need page markers, I can add as many as I want, or change the bands, or do whatever. I can do the same with the Midori cover, but then I’d be ruining something that had a specific design in the first place, where the home made cover was never a specific intent. Using something I made provides some self-actualization, and this makes the book attractive to use even if it’s not the most convenient.

Potential Improvements

  • Using thinner leather and/or chrome tanned to see if not having the crease works better.
  • Making one in reporter’s orientation, with a double layer of leather on the back for writing on.
  • Using regular cord instead of elastic for the binding.