Using Notebooks

It might seem strange that, as the paperless guy, I find myself using old-fashioned notebooks more and more frequently. But that’s just what I am doing. I wrote a post over the summer about the qualities of useful paper. Since then, I have continued to use notebooks to capture quick thoughts, ideas, to-do lists and other things.

I use two types of notebooks: An Evernote Moleskine notebook, and a Field Notes memo book.

My notebooks

The Moleskine notebook goes with me to every meeting, whether it is a work meeting, a homeowner’s association meeting, a meeting with an editor. I also use it as a kind of lab book while writing code or planning requirements for projects. And I use it for taking notes when I am reading articles, or learning something new. I try to maximize the use of each page. I single line across the page separates one thing from another (meetings, notes, sketches). A double-line indicates a change of date. I try to record the date for each day I have notes. Eventually, I use Evernote’s Scannable app to get these pages into Evernote for longterm safekeeping.

I carry a Field Notes memo book with me wherever I go. I use them so much that I have taken to wearing shirts with pockets just so that I have quick access to my notebook and pen.

Pocket shirts

This memo book has become a substitute for my short term memory. I’ve found that, as I get older, I remember things better if I write them down, as opposed to typing them in. Besides, these are short-term things. They are not the kind of notes I’d store in Evernote, as they would just clutter things up. I capture blog post and story ideas, to-do lists, and things I need to remember in the very short term—like the office number of the person I need to visit. A typical page will often combine many of these things.

Field Notes pages

I don’t worry about dating the field notes because they are short-term notes. But I do check off boxes and cross out ideas once I have used them.

Most apps that I have tried for taking quick, disposable notes have not worked well for me. Even Evernote, which I use for many other things, puts up too many barriers to taking quick notes. I am much more likely to record a note if I can just pull the notebook out of my pocket and start writing.

I have gotten used to pulling out my notebook in public to write a note, or capture an interesting observation. I suppose this is something that journalists are used to, but it took me a little while to get over the looks that I sometimes get. I did get over it. When I look back through my notes, I find that I have often captured everything I need, and no longer have to flex my memory to try to remember a particular fact. This comes in handy for things like writing blog posts. It also makes Kelly happy when I come back from the store with everything she asked me to pick up.

This may seem like a step backwards—going from digital notes to paper notes—and perhaps it is, but I enjoy jotting things down in my notebooks more than I ever did on my iPhone.


  1. Hi Jamie! Thanks for this post. Just a question: why do you use Scannable App instead of Evernote camera itself? I tried many times Scannable on my iPhone, but I think the entire process of saving a document into Evernote is not as linear as saving it within Evernote app itself.

  2. Does Scannable create a PDF in Evernote, or an image? I could see using Scannable if you can get a PDF out of it. I’ve been using Scanbot on my Android phone for when I need/want a PDF in Evernote. Otherwise, I just use the native Evernote document scanner which creates .PNG files. I haven’t found a way to scan to PDF using the native Evernote app.

  3. I like carrying those fancy journals you get at the bookstore, although I cheat and get them at garage sales for a song. They fit nicely in my purse, always look professional, and I like to highlight the things I’ve done, rather than cross them out so I can always glance back quickly to verify certain details.

  4. Michel – try looking at Staples Arc notebooks, or at the Levenger systems.

    I think that’s slightly different than what you posted, but similar.

  5. I’ve always had a thing about notebooks… in part because I’m a compulsive note-taker, because I forget stuff easily, and also because I just like notebooks. For years I carried around those little spiral memo pads (you can buy a pack of these at Walmart for a buck during back-to-school season). The only problem with these is that the spiral binding can easily get crushed or unwound.

    These days, I use my iPhone for note-taking, largely because I always have it with me, and also because I don’t need to worry about ancillaries such as a pen. I use the native Notes app as well as Evernote (where I can add reminders to my notes). I can also record voice memos on the go (again, Evernote does this, as well as the native Voice Memos app).

  6. Thanks for sharing your note taking strategies. I’m about to try moving back to paper “caching” like this. I may take the single and double line use from this post.

    Tonight I just read an awesome little 22 page, 30 minutes to read for a slow reader, e-book by a blogger named John Scullen about how he takes his paper notes and syncs them up with his Evernote. It is titled “Supercharged Notes: Seamlessly Integrate Handwritten Notes Into Your Digital Life – John Scullen” and can be found at You do have to sign up for his mailing list, but the PDF is definitely worth it. He has great tips on using different bullet checkboxes, status markings of those, and “qualifiers” for making his notes easily scanable by the human eye, e.g. what is reference, to-do, waiting for, etc.

    Lastly, I’ve been enjoying looking through the Going Paperless series, and have perused a few articles outside of that series as well. Thanks for sharing. I really like your site here.

  7. @Justinp8 Thanks for the e-book recommendation! I’ve been wanting to get back to using paper & pen for some time, but resisted for many of the reasons John mentions in his e-book. Between this blog post from Jamie, and the suggestions from John, I’m going to give it a try. I’ve even considered trying to write my morning pages long hand. I’ve definitely resisted that idea! Heck, it almost feels like I’ve forgot how to write by hand.


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