Business notes – loose pages or notebook?

Yes, I know. You’re looking at me thinking I’m some kind of luddite. Here we are, sitting in a meeting and you’ve got your tablet out and I’ve got my pen and paper.

Yes, I work with software, databases, and data visualization, and therefore I should be technologically adept. I am. I also enjoy reaping the benefits that come from writing notes by hand, including greater levels of attention and retention.

I invite you, dear colleague, to keep typing.

For the rest of you folks who also keep notes by hand, or are thinking about switching, and are thinking about how, here are some observations I’ve made over time.

There are a couple major ways to organize paper:

Loose pages

The vision of carrying a portfolio or slim briefcase filled with file folders and a few legal pads. This is a very flexible system, but there’s a lot of carry. Sometimes just a legal pad or portfolio will do.

  • Easier to file
  • Easier to scan into Evernote
  • Irrelevant pages easily skipped
  • Change paper at any time – lined, unlined, fancy, cheap, etc.
  • Really awesome paper is available
  • Hard to carry in small format
  • Not many folders/portfolios handle a large stack well
  • Easier to lose a page

Notebook

I’m always attracted to simplicity, and one notebook is pretty simple. I’ve never made this work for me, at least not for everything I need, but I do still keep one at work and use it for some note taking.

  • Everything is in the notebook
  • Still scannable using the Evernote app, particularly if done every day. Tedious if a lot needs to be done – no auto feed unless you cut the pages out.
  • Nothing gets lost, no obligation to file anything
  • Not easy to file – tear out a page, or make a copy
  • Gathering everything related to one project or subject is not easy.

What works for me

I like a legal pad or blank sheets for free writing, working out problems, or noodling on an idea. I also use loose sheets for implementing David Allen’s Getting Things Done system.

I use a notebook for business journaling and some note taking. It’s easy to carry the notebook, and most meetings I don’t write much except a few action items. I know that if I keep things there I can find them later, which makes it comfortable in a way.

Evernote adds search ability

Sometimes I feel a sense of obligation to stick with one method or the other – have only one method – consistency is the hobgoblin and all. I’m finding that Evernote relieves any angst about which to use. When I put things into Evernote I know I can find them later if I look for them. When I remember to put them in Evernote!

It sounds great, but it’s not always as good as I thought it would be. The other day I was looking for an old project and searched Evernote. I’d scanned in my handwritten project list, so it should have been easily found but nothing was turning up. I found it, by hand, but Evernote didn’t.

Search ability isn’t everything

Putting things in a better system for searching gives the impression that all is secure, but it’s a false impression. Having things easy to find is only of value when I think to look for them. What about when I don’t?

Sometimes I don’t think to look for important things. I’ve forgotten them. Having them buried in some database doesn’t help that. But having them in a book that I will come back to an page through (either looking for something else, or just for it’s own sake) greatly increases the odds I’ll run across it.

Right Place/Right Time As Critical As Search

Sometimes having a piece of paper in the right place wins over search. When I look in the file folder, there it is. This particularly true for subjects that I visit only occasionally, like strategy, ideas for the future, etc. I might fill a sheet with far out thoughts and ideas that don’t address any immediate issue. In the file it goes until I need to tap the well for new ideas. This isn’t the same for a notebook, where I’d have to be paging through in order to find it.

These notes are like stashing mad money in my wallet. When I need some ideas or inspiration, I check a file and find all sorts of things I’d forgotten about.

In theory I could put all the right keywords on it but words like strategy, idea, and innovation get used so much that I don’t think it would be workable.

Keeping notes vs curation

It’s tempting to go too far in thinking about business notes. To feel like everything has to be easily found, indexed and at one’s fingertips. Most of the time most of the notes I keep serve no one including me, and it’s pretty rare that a serious decision or action hinges on a note.

The notes are for me to help me work better and they do. To do that they don’t need to have Google-like efficiency. Half the value comes from writing the notes in the first place.

Don’t Make This Mistake – Pen And Paper On Choosing A House

A few years ago we bought our new house in Kentucky. We looked at a lot of houses. It’s hard enough to find a new place in a region that is familiar, but in a new state it’s even more challenging.

I kept bringing a notebook thinking the notes would be helpful in making a good decision. I was wrong – the notes I kept didn’t help at all, but I later realized what I should have done and hope my experience can help someone else. Actually this would work for apartments, cars, boats or any other large purchase where you must balance wants and needs with available inventory.

This is a simple tip for those house hunting in a new area, or perhaps making a similar choice:

When you write down notes on each home focus on what you don’t like. Specifically the deal breaker items.

Yes, that sounds backward, but here’s the explanation:

We started with a list of “must haves:”

  • Close to school
  • Walkable to stores, or at least a park so the kids have some autonomy and wouldn’t drive us nuts needing rides everywhere
  • All kid bedrooms on the same floor
  • Room to park the truck in the garage
  • Space for a shop
  • Nice yard

And on and on and on.

The problem is that the perfect house doesn’t exist, and in the end the choice involves compromise. But it’s not clear what compromises have to be made until after you’ve seen a bunch of places and learn what is available.

Once we figured out the perfect house wasn’t available we decided to give up some items. As we gave up on those items we remembered that there were homes we liked but for those items. The trick was to find those houses to reconsider them. It’s impossible to do this when all that’s been recorded for each house is what we liked.

If I had kept a simple list of address, and reasons why we didn’t like it our search would have been easier.

Tricks for keeping a journal that improves with age

  1. Your job is to document what’s happened, and how it affected you
  2. A good journal isn’t about revenge
  3. Stick to the facts
  4. Don’t accuse or speculate with the intent to accuse. Blaming others leads to a victim mentality. Yes, sometimes we are victimized, but wallowing in the mentality doesn’t help.
  5. No name calling
  6. Capture some detail
  7. Draw. Even a bad drawing is better than no drawing.
  8. Write what you can use – plans, lists, etc.
  9. Read your journal from time to time. If you don’t read it you won’t improve, and you won’t get a lot of the value it can provide. You also won’t learn what content is most valuable to you.
  10. Try not to write for the sake of writing, or for some kind of effect – journalling is not an effective way of getting attention, and all that stuff is annoying to wade through when you’re reading it later.
  11. Be honest about yourself. You are the primary audience, are you fooling yourself?
  12. You probably won’t appreciate the drama you write
  13. Don’t use an adjective unless you must. This is useful advice for all writing.

We all have moments when we just need to vent and poop all over the page. Fine, do it on a legal pad, fold the sheet and stick it in your journal. Look at it a month later and if you really think it’s got value leave it in there. Most of the time you’ll roll your eyes and toss it, and it’s gone.

Following these rules will give you a journal that has more value in the future with the added benefit of being less of a liability today.