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


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.

Only girls keep diaries

When I was a boy I didn’t keep a journal because back then I didn’t know what a journal was, I knew what a diary was. Diaries were kept by girls, not boys in my mind. I thought about starting one and calling it a log book. Later I learned that another term was journal, but I still hesitated because even though I could call it a journal, I knew it was a diary.

Diaries were for spewing the innermost thoughts and secrets and feelings – something girls had in abundance – all the whispering and giggling in class was proof of that – but boys not so much.

I wanted to record the manly version of that stuff and clearly that was different. Little did I know how little difference there was. Ah the social constructs that were defined for us as kids.

How many years did I cheat myself out of useful insight by this silliness? Too many.

The most ridiculous part of this is that some of the most bad-ass diaries in existence were those kept by the men of the Shackleton expedition to Antarctica, including a year stuck on elephant island (a year!). Those men didn’t keep journals, they called them diaries. Even if they’d been pink and written in lavender ink in a pen with a furry ball on top they were still people who endured a life of unbelievable hardship, and managed to write about it.

What it’s called doesn’t matter. What matters is that you get started.

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.

XYark – Adult-sized Field Notes?

So a long while back I used to journal in the pocket size Moleskine notebooks – the ubiquitous black hardcover ones. They worked pretty well but I slowly moved up the sizes until I was using the Leuchtturm1917 master dots size. A great size with lots of space, but hard to carry anywhere, so I slid back down to the BookFactory blank books in the 8×10 size. Also a nice size, but not so good for travel.

After eventually going all the way back down to Field Notes notebooks in a leather cover I’d made, I realized that’s too small. But I like the cover and I liked the slim volumes. Just needed the next size up. I know Field Notes makes their Pitch Black notebooks in 4.5″ x 7.5″ size, but they’re $8 each. And yes, I bought some and I’ll be reviewing those shortly!

I went looking for refills that were the 5×8 size, dot grid, and not too expensive. Moleskine ruined their Cahier notebooks by making 25% of the pages perforated. Leuchtturm1917 did even worse by ruining the entire book; the whole thing is perforated. I know a lot of folks want pages perforated so they can tear them out, but I’m not one of those people.

Looking on Amazon I found these: XYark 12 Pack Dot Grid Notebook Journals

They arrived in a nice stack in a plastic bag and are just what I expected. Stitch bound, not perforated, dot grid. The paper is thin and the cover is just a bit thicker, but not as thick as a Field Notes or Moleskine Cahier. I didn’t buy them to survive on their own – they’ll be in a leather cover – so I’m not worried about the covers so much.

Fieldnotes with leather cover, left. New notebooks, right.
Fieldnotes with leather cover, left. New notebooks, right.

60 pages is about 1/4 of what is in a Leuchtturm1917 notebook of the same size, so I figure I’ll go through about three or four of these in a year. I used to want notebooks to last for as many months of journaling as possible, but I’ve found I really don’t look back that often away from home.

The paper is not fantastic, but it’s nearly as good as Moleskine, not as good as Leuchtturm’s. It’s a smidge rougher. No word on whether it is acid free or not. A cursory test with fountain pen ink showed no bleed using Noodler’s black that had been in a pen for quite a while, in a TWSBI pen that leaves a wet line. Parker roller ball was the same. Writing very slowly it was a little more apparent from the other side, but not what I would call bleed through. The dot grid is a bit darker than Leuchtturm1917, which was off putting at first but now I’m over it.

Leuchtturm1917 dot grid top, new notebook dot grid bottom.
Leuchtturm1917 dot grid top, new notebook dot grid bottom.

My main concern with these is durability. Will the paper will self destruct over time? The manufacturer doesn’t say if it is acid free. The cover is thin and these books probably won’t be very durable on their own in a bag if you’re rough with them.

$20 for 12 books, 720 pages, or about 1/3 the price of Leuchtturm1917 large notebooks. No pocket, no page numbers, no index, no perforations, no silly promise about rewards.

If you’re looking for a no-frills notebook at a good price this option is hard to beat.

Moleskine XL review

When I moved from the usual A5 size notebook to the Leuchtturm 1917 Master Dots it was quite a shock, but one I got over and I quickly got used to the extra space. But that book is pretty massive, and just to big to find in many bags.

So then it was the BookFactory blank book that I was using, and I filled a few of those. I like the size, and the paper was good, but they got to be very expensive.

Looking for a replacement, I tried the Moleskine XL.

  • This notebook is the right size. Not too big to fit in bags it needs to fit in, not so small that I feel like I’m writing in a cramped space.
  • No tear out pages, so I can use the whole book.
  • The usual pocket in the back, which can be handy at times.
  • The stupid notice about a reward, which I resent because it put’s a reward in the mind of the finder, when they might not think of it otherwise. I can always write my own reward offer.
  • The usual elastic band to keep it closed.
  • Paper is fine for me, but probably too thin for most. It’s not going to put up with a wet fountain pen, or the nibbed firehoses that some folks use. It’s also thin enough that any kind of water color wash will buckle the paper.
  • Book is thin – not as many pages as the book factory. On the plus side, the book shouldn’t get too beat up before it’s full.
  • No page numbers. I always liked the idea of the, but I’ll confess I haven’t really used them.

Really this is a pretty good book. The cover material seems to be a bit thicker, slightly more leather-like than the older Moleskines I have. More like the old softcover notebooks from the past.

Overall this book is a winner. It won’t be for everyone, and especially not folks used to wet pens or water colors, but if you’re writing with a mainstream pen or pencil, it’s hard to beat.

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.