How to use notebooks to organise your life

A few weeks ago I posted a story on Instagram called ‘Where you can find me’. (It was part of the Social Mouth challenge which you can find more about here.) In the video I showed my collection of notebooks which I didn’t really think would be of much interest to anyone. But it turns out, judging from the inordinate number of direct messages I received, that I’m not the only one who has a weird fascination with other people’s notebooks and ways of working.

In my experience there is no one organisational system that can work for everyone. We all have our own idiosyncratic behaviours and preferences and it’s far better to take inspiration from lots of places and find your own way to stay on top of your workload. A number of people have asked me to share more about my notebooks and how I work and I hope that in explaining my system you might find a couple of tips that work for you. 

I am a paper and pen person. I just am. Once I accepted this and gave up trying to find the perfect digital system everything became a whole lot easier. I have lost count of the number of comprehensive and satisfying systems I’ve spent hours setting up on Trullo, Asana, Todoist and the like only to never, ever look at them again. I do, however, use certain online systems out of necessity and for convenience. For completeness, before we get into notebooking, here is what I use, and why.

THE NECESSARY DIGITAL SYSTEMS

EVERNOTE

This is where I save information I need to refer to frequently, especially items that I need to copy and paste as obviously you can’t do that from a notebook. This includes things such as my VAT number, my brand hex codes, that sort of thing. I also save scans of paper documents as I can't abide storing paper, which I know sounds contradictory as I've just said I'm a pen and paper person. 

iPHONE NOTES APP

I use this to write down anything when I’m out and about as I don’t tend to carry a notebook with me. I will later transpose these items to a notebook list.

SAFARI READING LIST

I use this a lot. It’s where I bookmark any useful information I come across on the internet. It’s faster than saving to Evernote or elsewhere. It has a good search function which is handy as it does tend to get a bit out of control.

EMAIL INBOX

I am RUTHLESS with my inbox. A number of times a day I go through my inbox and either delete, deal with or file. Mostly for filing I sweep emails into an folder named ‘Archive’. I create one each calendar year. The search function is so good on email nowadays that I find there is usually no need for specific folders other than in a few situations (for example I have a dedicated folder for our Red Book emails). 

Emails that remain in my inbox serve as my to-do list as they all have action needed. My inbox rarely goes over 50 emails and is currently standing at 21. I am also ruthless at unsubscribing from emails lists I don’t want to be on, excluding our Red Book emails of course.

NOTEBOOKING

Ok, so, on to notebooks.

My approach is an amalgamation of three separate systems:

  1. Bullet Journal
  2. Project notebooks
  3. Hipster PDA

Midori MD notebooks

BULLET JOURNAL

The centre of all my organisation and planning is my Bullet Journal.

Described as an ‘analogue system for the digital age’, the Bullet Journal (‘BuJo’ for short) is a wonderfully simple way to organise your life with no special notebooks or equipment required. If you are not familiar with the system, watch this short video which will explain everything. And if you want to feel slightly intimidated by how beautiful these can be, check out the #bujo tag on instagram. Mine look absolutely nothing like these by the way.

There are so many fancy planners on the market at the moment but in my experience they never seem to have the right sections and are too restrictive. Traditional diaries never seem to work for me either as some days I need more than one page and some days I don’t need any pages at all which feels like a waste of paper. The Bullet Journal replaces others planners and diaries. 

You can use any notebook whatsoever as it’s essentially just a way of organising and indexing a normal notebook. You can make it as cheap or expensive as you like, and can start at any point in the year, rather than 1st January or 1st September as with a normal diary.

I use the Future Log, the Index, Migration, Collections and the Monthly Log. I don’t use the Daily Log and instead use a Hipster PDA for this (detailed below). I also use my Midori MD diary (also detailed below) to manage the monthly log.

WHICH NOTEBOOKS

Ok, so I know what you really want to know is what notebooks do I use.

For my Bullet Journal I use A5 Midori MD diaries. The paper is beautifully smooth and so is good for fountain pens and for writing quickly. Midori MD notebooks open completely flat which is necessary for us left-handers. MD diaries are essentially just notebooks with a monthly planner at the front which means you can start at any time during the year and not worry about wasting empty days or having nowhere to write notes. It means you can have your lists and schedules together rather than in separate parts of your diary. I prefer these to normal notebooks as I don’t really like the Bullet Journal way of creating a monthly plan.

I have leather covers for my Bullet Journals, also by Midori, although these seem to have doubled in price since I bought mine.

I find the Midori pen holders too small for the Faber Castell Broadpen 1554 that I favour so I have some Kikki K notebook elastics which also help identify which notebook is which. I also use Iconic page markers to mark pages I refer to frequently. 

PROJECT NOTEBOOKS

As well as my Bullet Journal I have separate notebooks for projects that I’m working on. I find this keeps things ‘cleaner’ but also I find it gives me the mental shift required to close the book on one piece of work and open the book on another, particularly if it involves closing one side of my brain and opening up another. Opening a notebook can even feel like a treat when I’ve finally managed to carve out some time to work on my quilt, for example, and get to open that notebook.

I currently have separate notebooks for the following:

  • Quilting
  • Personal development (vision boards, courses I’m doing, affirmations, Miracle Morning work etc)
  • Creative journal (instagram planning, visual or creative courses, photography, seasonal planning)
  • Wild Swimming diary

I read somewhere that you should always put a photo of yourself in the front cover of your notebook. I can’t even remember why but I do always do it. It just seems to make it more meaningful somehow. Invariably it’s a photo of me and Edward.

For my projects I use a variety of Midori MD notebooks (A6/A5, lined, squares, plain), with covers and notebook elastics, as mentioned above. Sometimes I use a Field Notes notebook if it’s a smaller project, such as wild swimming.

HIPSTER PDA

The Hipster PDA started out as a joke, satirising the increasingly complex world of electronic PDA (Personal Digital Assistants). But actually it turned out to be genuinely useful so it stuck. The idea is that you write the three to five most important tasks on an index card and cross them off when they’re done and then add more. It’s that simple.

I’ve found writing my daily and weekly tasks in my Bullet Journal doesn’t work for me as I have days when I don’t open my notebook at all. These little notes are great for keeping to hand, to scribble down things to remember that come to mind when you’re focusing on something else. You can also use the back to write shopping lists etcetera.

I tend to start one each week and use it until I’ve run out of room and then start a new one, transferring any tasks I haven't completed to my Monthly Log in my Bullet Journal. Because they are small and just one piece of paper I can carry them around in my pocket without having to take my Bullet Journal everywhere.

You are supposed to use old fashioned index cards but I dislike these so instead I use Smythson Correspondence Cards as the paper is so much nicer. I know that sounds ridiculously indulgent but they are £10 for 50 and I’m halfway through a pack I’ve had for over a year so they work out pretty good value. (Mine are actually smaller than the ones linked so perhaps they only do the larger ones now.)

I hope that this was helpful. If you have any other tips please do leave them in the comments below.

If you like this, you might like Lunch & a Walk at Daylesford

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The Bleak House guide to Columbia Road flower market

Comments

This is delightful! And I agree, we all have a fascination with how people organize their lives and time and the systems they use to do it.

Last year, before we traveled to the UK, I bought a Midori Traveler’s Notebook and oodles of “accessories” for it, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. I used it as a combination of itinerary (filled out before we left home) and journal (to fill out day by day). I brought along drawing pens and colored pencils and had ever so much fun journaling at the end of each day. Also, each day had a section for “What We Hope to See”, which listed what was expected and my fondest hopes (Stow-on-the-Wold, have tea and scones, fluffy sheep, breakfast at Daylesford, pet a dog, etc.). And at the end of each day, I wrote down all the “Unexpected Delights” (babbling brooks, the crunch of gravel, delightful and atmospheric pub lunch). Honestly…the thought of being able to use my travel notebook again is an incentive to travel more!

I am unfamiliar with the Midori notebooks you use, and will have to study them further. Thank you for the recommendation!

Your IG account has rapidly risen to the top of my favorites!

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