Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Notebooks and Capture

A paper notebook

Even though my handwriting is (to put it bluntly) horrible, paper notebooks are my preferred way of jotting down ideas and thoughts. I’m not against digital note taking. I’ve been going the digital route since the early 1990s, when I used an Atari Portfolio. Using a paper notebook, I find, is faster.

The problem is that I often have several notebooks in play at any one time. I have a Moleskine notebook that stays in my bag, and another that’s at hand in my apartment. On top of that, I have a small Noted Essentials notebook I bought from Whitcoulls (a bookstore chain here in New Zealand) that I slip into my pocket with a pen when I need to travel light.

Why is that a problem? The thoughts and ideas I’m taking down are physically scattered. It can be difficult to figure out which notebook contains which notes and on what pages. Woe betide me if I accidentally leave a notebook at a friend’s house. Or worse, lose it.

Even if I only used one notebook, I’d still run into that problem — there would be times when I needed information in the notebook, but it wouldn’t be handy.

So, how do I get around that? By transferring those notes to a digital tool as soon as I can.

Knowing What To Use, and What For

Working with analog and digital tools can be a bit of a juggling act. I find that I really need to balance what I used each one for. And it’s not just me. I know and have talked to a few people who feel that way too.

I get around that by using a notebook for immediately capturing ideas and notes. Then, I use the digital tools for permanent storage and to refine or expand upon those notes.

Picking Your Digital Tool

Use the tool that you’re most comfortable with. While my preferred note taking application is Simplenote, yours might be Evernote or Google Keep or even a set of text files that live on your hard drive or in Dropbox.

Just make sure that the tool you use lets you tag or otherwise organize your notes so you can find them quickly when you need them.

Scheduling Time to Do the Transfer

How often you transfer your notes from a paper notebook to a digital tool will depend on how much you jot down in your notebook. Do you write by hand a lot, and every day? Are you just writing down point-form notes every so often? Is it somewhere in between?

If you’re a high-volume note taker, you’ll want to set aside some time every day to do the transfer. I schedule an hour on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to move information from my notebooks into Simplenote. I don’t always need the full hour, but I make sure the time is there in case I have to use it.

To be honest, I should do the transfer daily. Not because I’m writing down that much information, but because my handwriting is so bad at times I can’t make out what I’ve written! Information decay, indeed.

What About Information Shared Across Multiple Notebooks?

This does happen from time to time. At least, it happens to me. I’ll write a note in one of my notebooks. Then, maybe the next day, an idea that expands on that note hits and I jot it down in another notebook. When it comes time transfer my notes to Simplenote, something could get lost or spread across two digital notes.

To get around that, I use a crude form of analogue tagging based around coloured highlighters:

  • Blue, which tells me related information is in the notebook I carry in my bag.
  • Yellow, which tells me related information is in the notebook in my apartment.
  • Pink, which tells me related information is in my grab-and-go notebook.

When I don’t have highlighters with me, I tag notes with shorthand that points me to the correct notebook. So I don’t miss those tags, I either circle them or surround them with a double rectangle.

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