Note taking

What is the second notebook for? And with that simple question began two weeks of anguish. Why did I have two notebooks in one meeting?

Tool kit
Tool kit

What method do I use for note taking? There are multiple methods, or systems, out there for note taking or journals or whatever term works for you. I don’t have a system as such, just one key rule. Well, I guess it’s more of a constraint really.

  • Constraint: One working week is one page only, specifically two facing sheets, thereby ensuring the full week may be viewed at once.

As will no doubt become evident anyway in what follows, this note taking is considered solely in the context of work – I do not use a personal notebook.

What notebooks do I use? My notebook of choice is a Rhodia A5 dot-grid Webnotebook (the notebook). This notebook is used for virtually all note taking at work. This notebook in particular was started in 6th January, 2014. It’s still going. There are about 24 pages remaining, another 24 work weeks of room. So as far as value goes, it’s working. In addition to this notebook I have two others, a Rhodia A5 meeting book (the meeting book), spiral bound and a Rhodia A4 dot-grid pad (the dotpad). Yes, I have a thing about Rhodia, love that paper.

What motivated the constraint? It goes back to university. I got into the habit of taking copious notes during lectures, I would write down as much as I possibly could in an attempt to miss nothing. This then carried into my working life; the first time I produced a set of minutes for a meeting I was met by bafflement – I had captured everything uttered by all attendees during a two hour meeting. So over time I worked on trying to reduce the volume of notes I would take in a meeting, ultimately reaching the current state of affairs.

What notes do I capture? Well it’s a mixture of important points from a meeting, items to be actioned by me or others, general notes or learnings arising from research or some form of testing as part of my job. If I have any random thoughts relating to a different topic I’ll try to capture these in the notebook, see my points on reviews below. And so on; everything of potential importance really.

What icons/markup do I use to flag key objects? Capturing different objects requires some form of icon or markup to highlight these. The approach to markup has been quite simple and with very little development. For an action I place an empty box next to the note, typically after the note. Once the item is complete I tick the box; should the action be cancelled I strike it out, note and box. For an important point I place an asterisk next to the note, typically before the note. There are no other icons at present. Note that I borrow some language from the bullet journal system here, signifiers.

  • Action Signifier: Action items are flagged using an empty box. Once complete tick these boxes.
  • Important Signifier: An asterisk is inserted to flag important note.

What do I use to differentiate between days/meetings? I write small so the page become quite dense. To allow me to see at a glance my past week I break the sheets down, with a green line dividing the meetings/topics within a day and a double red line separating the days. Each day is started by entering the date and day and also a list of any to-do items which I will focus on in that day. At the end of each day I draw the red lines and insert any actions still outstanding and requiring focus as the initial to-dos for the next day. In addition to splitting each day via a green line between meetings, I also try to alternate pens. This is not hard and fast but typically I will use my Lamy 2000 (currently filled with Waterman Absolute Brown) for one meeting, then my Pilot Custom 74 Fine (Waterman Serenity Blue) for the next. Of course, if I run from one meeting to another I may not have the second pen to allow me to alternate. Main notes are always written in dark colours (e.g. blue, brown, black – hmm, these all start with ‘b’)

  • Day separator: days are separated by a red double-line. 
  • Meeting separator: meetings are separated by a single line.

What do I insert on review of my notes? I also tend to review my notes each day and add additional comments where relevant. These additional notes are normally added using my Karas Kustoms INK, ideal due to the super fine nib I have installed. Where I do not have this pen to hand I use the Lamy or Pilot, depending on which I used in the meeting itself; this way these additional notes are ALWAYS in a different colour.

  • Review/additional notes: additional notes are inserted in a different colour to the main notes, red being the preferred colour.
  • Additional notes: On review any additional notes must be entered in a different colour to the main notes, with red ink being the preferred option. 

What, if any, exceptions are tolerated? As stated above, this is not a proper system, there are currently two exceptions which I accept though they do upset me a little. At times, I am required to draw some sketches of a proposed workflow or design for the purpose of planning or discussion; I cannot include these in my notebook as there is no way I would meet the constraint. For these cases I use the dotpad. Another exception revolves around certain meetings. If a session is likely to be action heavy or even note heavy then, again, I would be in danger of breaching the constraint. In this instance I need to use another notebook, the meeting book. I note these exceptions in my primary notebook and scan the additional notes. I do not generally keep the additional note paper. I can usually tell in advance if my meeting would meet the above exceptions (length of timeslot, notorious attendees1, etc.) so I am usually tooled up appropriately.

  • Exception 1: Where a meeting is certain to be heavily action focussed OR expected to be particularly note heavy I use a specific meeting book instead of the notebook. 
  • Exception 2: Where a meeting requires design sketching I supplement my notebook with a pad.

Note the key difference between these exceptions, the first is a replacement of the notebook whereas the second is a supplement to the notebook.

What is missing or just not working? My current approach grew organically and that, I suppose, is causing some problems. It gets very dense, which can cause some key items to be overlooked. There is no form of indexing, I use my MS Outlook calendar serving in this role – check on what date certain meeting occurred, go to that date in notebook to find notes. This is fine until I do not have a record of the meeting (yes this happens with informal meetings) and so leads to some searching and guessing. The constraint itself is becoming more a hindrance than an advantage. Having to have an additional notebook to meet Exception 1 is not something with which I am happy. Exception 2 does make sense, I won’t be changing that. To do lists are currently thought of as a day-by-day items. There are however action items which are large and complex and which cannot be completed within one day or one week. Also, some are recurring. So the current approach is deficient in this. The following is a list of my current desired enhancements.

  • Indexing: include some means of indexing to, at a minimum, allow the tracking of high importance items or themes
  • Constraint: review need for constraint in current form, remove without returning to written diarrhoea.
  • To-do: include some means of incorporating longer-term and recurring action items.

What other systems have I considered? There are as many systems out there as there are note takers. This is a fact of life, everyone will have their own changes to an accepted system. I have been reading blogs, listening to podcasts and I have narrowed down my preferences to two systems, the Bullet Journal by Ryder Carroll and Dash/Plus by Patrick Rohne. The bullet journal is a good option, having an index and a well defined suite of signifiers to highlight different objects. It is month and topic focussed. I like the month focus, a list of to-dos for that month with a calendar of key events. Dash/Plus is a much simpler system. It does not have the indexing of the bullet journal but does have a shorter list of signifiers, a simplicity which I like. The feature here being that the signifiers build upon an initial dash icon, it’s neat and very clever.

What next? I have about six months left in my current notebook and I will not be changing the current approach until I start a new book. I have purchased a Leuchtturm1917 notebook2 due to its inclusion of pages for contents at the front plus page numbers. The paper is also highly recommended; why take notes if the act itself cannot be enjoyed. The current intention is to take the indexing and monthly calendaring features of the bullet journal and the simple approach to signifiers of Dash/Plus. I don’t like the idea of collections, i.e. topics, in the bullet journal; nature abhors a vacuum, I abhor skipped blank pages of which there would be a risk using this particular feature of the bullet journal (leaving some pages blank to allow a collection to grow). There is some evidence that I have gotten this wrong, for example this post from Barry Morris. The constraint will have to go, as will Exception 1. I have several months to consider my next approach so my thoughts may change on this.

Leuchtturm1917 Whitelines + Rhodia Meeting Book
Leuchtturm1917 Whitelines + Rhodia Meeting Book

What to do in the meantime? Research continues with quite a few episodes of different podcasts queued up, I have located many touching on journal systems. I do like nothing more than time in which to make a decision so the wait won’t be too long,though I may get impatient as the notebook approaches its end.

End notes:
1 There are certain colleagues who like a good chat in a meeting. Very often these chats contain very important points or insights which I would be remiss to ignore, therefore i need additional paper space to ensure I capture any such points. 
2 This is the whitelines version and will have to be re-tasked for personal use. I cannot use this for work as sensitive information will be stored and as such I cannot scan and store on personal cloud accounts (e.g. dropbox, drive). I will purchase a normal Leuchtturm1917 version, yes with dot-grid.

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