Creative Leadership

Why I Use a Printed Notebook for Ideas and Planning

If nothing else, I am an explorer and an experimenter. I fully embrace new techniques, ways of doing things, apps, and more – probably because I get bored easily and love exploring new options. When it comes to note taking, I started with a spiral notebook back in college, then years later gravitated to a computer. I’ve used various note apps that evolved early, then tried Evernote, but settled on Apple Notes (It’s free, simple and clean.) To-do apps were the same – I tried Wunderlist, Trello, Asana, and plenty of others before I settled on Things.

But lately, I’ve decided to migrate much of my work back to my original method – a physical, print notebook. Here’s why:

1) My to-do list app (Things) was so easy to use my list grew to be unmanageable. Yes – a great app allows you to prioritize, but I have so many ideas, and the to-do list grew so long, I started to ignore it. I’m still going to keep up that long computer list as a dumping ground (I get a lot of ideas), but when it comes to execution, with a print journal, I can more easily focus on what’s really important for that day.

2) More and more research indicates that the act of physical writing engages the brain more deeply and causes us to remember more than simply typing. In fact, it’s been suggested that physically writing things down improves immune cell activity and reduces antibody counts for people with viruses like Epstein-Barr and AIDS. Some scientists even think writing can improve memory and help you sleep.

3) While there are plenty of sketching apps for my iPad, there’s nothing like physically sketching ideas out on a piece of paper.

4) I’ve shifted from taking extensive meeting notes to writing down Action Steps, so a notebook is perfect for that. You can see why here. If I have extensive notes, I’ll stick them in Apple Notes.

5) This may sound old-school, but I’m uncomfortable opening my computer in client meetings – even if I’m taking notes on it. Sure, everyone does it these days, but the truth is, at the same time most of those people are also checking email, text messaging, and more. I’m old enough to feel that it’s disrespectful to the leader, and if you can’t go a few hours without checking your email, then you have bigger problems. Just try it – in your next meeting make notes using a pen and paper, and see if your attention, focus, and creativity doesn’t increase.

6) Reading through my ideas in old notebooks is far more inspiring and insightful than scrolling through those same ideas in a computer document. If the whole point of keeping notes is for later review, then a notebook wins hands down.

So how do I use a print notebook? My notebook is a combination of new ideas, project notes, and a to-do list (or Action Steps). I’m a writer and producer, so I use a combination of writing and sketching in my notebook, although I do far more writing. So here’s what I focus on:

1) An area for the overall project or topic of the day. It may be a meeting, a video or writing project, client calls, or a strategy session. I note that at the top with the date and location.

2) An area for very brief notes or sketches. As I mentioned, I discovered that after years and years of note taking, I rarely actually went back to look at those mountains of notes (sound familiar?) so I switched to Action Steps. Here’s a post on that method.

3) An area for Action Steps. This can also be called a to-do list. This isn’t a long list, it’s 3 big things I need to accomplish today, or in other cases, what am I going to do as a result of this meeting, project, strategy session, etc?

That’s really all I need. So many notebooks today are filled with “daily affirmations,” pre-guided templates for productivity, or cute drawings. All that I really need are the 3 areas above. Do I ever change that layout? Almost every day. Always be open to new ideas and better methods, but I’ve discovered that basic template sets me up for the best result.

What notebook did I pick?

For ideas and meeting notes:

I tried the Moleskine Pro Collection but it was too blank, and I had to create too many lists and sections. It was similar with the “Bullet Journal” which is pretty much completely blank. If you have tons of free time to create all your lists and schedules, then great, but I have to work for a living.

In the opposite direction, the “Passion Planner,” and others like the Full Focus Planner ask me to fill out way too much information – much of which isn’t related to my creative work.  They and others have far too many questions to answer like “daily affirmations,” “magical moments,” and other fluff. (At least it’s fluff to me.)

So I created “Unique: The Ultimate Planner for Creative Professionals.” Obviously you don’t have to be in a traditionally creative job to use it, but it can help expand and grow your creativity. I has just enough template sections to help you quickly jot down tasks and projects, but leaves plenty of blank space for your ideas, drawing, sketches, and more. Click on the link above and you’ll find out all the reasons it’s become my go-to planner.

I’d encourage you to try it, because when it comes to creativity, the more simple, fun, and flexible it is makes a difference – plus, the ease of referring back to those great ideas you’re creating is important as well.

I’d love to know your thoughts on what works best for you….

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12 Comments

  1. One fabulous post! Thanks for the detail level. My process is organic as well. Prefer writing vs typing. So the best of all worlds for me is Goodnotes on an iPad pro 9.7 and an apple pencil. Love love love it…and in a pen and paper guy 🙂

  2. Great post Phil – I have gone back to paper note taking as well. I honestly believe my written notes have better clarity and creativity. It is reassuring to hear this from other professionals. I’m using a traditional planner; however, I only use it for daily tasks and notes – the Apple Calendar and Contacts work well for me. Thanks again for a great article – looking forward to your review on the Full Focus Planner.

  3. Tomorrow I will submit my application for Cyprus citizenship. This involves between 1,000 and 1,500 sheets of paper. Paper stresses me. I don’t know why, but it does. When I use paper I get in a muddle and I can actually feel my heart rate rising. In a book (for notes) I can never find where I wrote something, and again I get stressed.

    Apple’s Spotlight is my friend. As is Google. When I have misfiled something I can find it again. It’s one of the reasons I like Apple stuff: My iPhone, iPad, Macbook Air and Mac Mini are all synchronised.

    I suppose I really need a PA. I make the notes… pass them to my PA… and my organised PA passes them back when I ask for them. But I don’t have one.

    I used to use one of those mini organisers with 6 rings (Daytimer in the USA?) since that was what all my colleagues in TV News used. The address book worked OK, the rest was a total muddle and I just lost things I wrote.

    [PS I’m not consistent I prefer to read paper books than Kindle or eBooks, though I do use eBooks for research because I don’t like writing notes in real books — it feels almost like sacrilege!]

  4. [PS I’m not consistent I prefer to read paper books than Kindle or eBooks, though I do use eBooks for research because I don’t like writing in real books — it feels almost like sacrilege!]

  5. As I study for the Bible study lessons I write, I make my notes on legal pads rather than on my laptop. I am such a perfectionist (and artist) I want the computer page to be perfect and look right (which takes up time) whereas notes can be scribbled all over the legal pad pages. And, because I’ve written them down I tend to remember better (and can “see” in my mind’s eye where the note is on the page, and that helps me to find what I’m looking for). Great article. Thanks.

  6. Great post Phil – I have gone back to paper note taking as well. I honestly believe my written notes have better clarity and creativity. It is reassuring to hear this from other professionals. I’m using a traditional planner; however, I only use it for daily tasks and notes – the Apple Calendar and Contacts work well for me. Thanks again for a great article – looking forward to your review on the Full Focus Planner.

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