Writing Things Down So I Don’t Forget

When I was employed in my first “proper” job, which in fact I have to this day, I was always trying to find ways to organise my thoughts and notes in such a way as to record everything I needed to know, and to remember, and to write up elsewhere. I would watch respected senior colleagues draw margins in notebooks, and scribble with pencils and fountain pens, and try to incorporate their methods. Now, finally, as I approach 38, I feel I have settled on a pretty decent system. It’s just a few things I do, and I don’t know if it’s perfect or even ideally suited to me, but I thought I’d lay it all out in plain sight.

The Tools

I use a regular hard-backed spiral bound notebook, with the spiral on the side rather than on the top. In the UK I would use a A4-sized one. Sometimes it would book-bound rather than spiral, which didn’t matter much. Now in the US I use some weird thing that is 7″ wide by 9 1/2″ tall. Doesn’t really matter. This book is my everyday notepad, work to-do list, sketchpad (I’m an engineer who thinks in diagrams), and everything else. I also use Outlook for email and calendar, but I carry the book around, to meetings and so on. It’s my record of everything. I have a shelf with about half a dozen of them.

I have one blue and one black Parker Vector fountain pens. I find that my terrible handwrting (I’m an engineer after all) is at least partly legible if I use a fountain pen. Failing that, I have a couple of Pilot G1’s floating around. I also have a Staedtler Mars 780 lead holder for pencil sketches. I love the metal knurling, but wish it would stay sharper for longer – the lead pointer makes such a mess.

The Method

In the insde front cover, I write the date, so that I know when I started using the book. When the book is full, I write the date again. This gives me a record of all my notes.

I number the books pages in the top outside corner as I go, and give it a margin if it doesn’t have one, using the old hold-the-pen-with-fingernail-against-edge-of-book-to-get-straight-margin-line-method. My current book has margins, and date boxes and all sorts of good stuff.

As I write stuff down during meetings, I draw a little box next to each task, or other notes if they’re required. Then later I can go through, rewrite stuff, and check off the tasks. When everything on a page is done, checked, ticked, or otherwise finished with, I write a diagonal slash across the bottom outside corner. That way I can flick through and see that there is nothing on that page that needs my attention.

Once a bunch of pages is completed, I clip them together using a small foldback clip. If I have one undone task on a page which is preventing me from marking the page as complete, I copy it to a newer page, marking the number of the new page in the tasks little box. On the newer page, I also mark the task with the page it came from, to show that it  has been deferred, and should be dealt with quickly.

That’s it really. Pretty simple. Considering it took me years to settle on a method that seems to work, you’d think it would be more complex and profound. Nope.

Anecdote: A colleague used to use a small tape recorder to record thoughts on the way home in his car. It was quite amusing what he would do to mark the end of one thought and the start of another – when he had finished talking about one subject, he would make a long, low beep noise, “beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep”.

Later, when he was trying to find his various thoughts on the tape by using the fast forward and rewind buttons, he would be able to hear his speeded-up talking, interspersed with high pitched, “biiip!”