A few of my past journals

Keeping Track of What Matters: Why I Use a Journal at Work

The other day, as I was meeting with a colleague, he expressed surprise at how I was taking notes. “You keep all your business notes in a Moleskine?” It must have seemed a bit unusual – most people around here take notes on letter-size notepads, scratch paper, or, in a few cases, business planners. I’m the only one using a “fancy” journal.

It seemed strange to me, too, for a while. These notes aren’t anything really important, certainly nothing personal, so shouldn’t I just use regular old paper? I tried that for a couple of months and ran into a few problems. Sure, most of my notes weren’t that important and I would never look at them again, but what about those that were important? Where would I keep those? Further, I wound up with stacks of project and meeting notes that I needed to save for reference, but once I tore them out of the pad, they would curl up, rip, and become very annoying to file away.

I tried all sorts of things to keep these notes under control – copying the important ones into OneNote, taking pictures and importing them to Evernote, using Outlook to store important information – but I could never find a solution that met all my needs. It had to be:

  • Mindless: I wouldn’t have to think about where I was going to record something.
  • Mobile: It needed to be with me all or most of the time.
  • Reliable: It had to be there when I needed to record something AND when I needed to retrieve something.

Then I realized that I already had a great solution: my journal. I’ve used journals off-and-on since college, starting with ring-bound sketchbooks and trying several other varieties and sizes before settling on black, 5″x8″ soft-covers. I’m currently using a Moleskine, but my preferred brand is ecosystem. (Thanks, Michael Hyatt!)

Daily Work Matters

Using a journal at my current job, though, required a subtle mental shift for me. My first journals are filled with poetry and creative writing projects. After college, I continued to use them to record reflections, reading notes, and other personal things. When I was Associate Director for InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network, using a journal seemed natural because so much of my work involved writing projects, theological and scriptural reflection, and conversations about education and spirituality.

My current job, though, is building and maintaining websites for a national storage and organization company. Not a whole lot of “touchy-feely” stuff going on there. Realizing that my journal would be the perfect medium for my work notes, though, reminded me of the whole premise behind this blog: my daily work matters. Taking notes during a meeting about software bugs doesn’t feel as journal-worthy as a love poem, but that says more about my assumptions about journals than it does about the value of the work itself.

Further, over the years, I’ve discovered that keeping a journal, even when it’s filled with mundane daily activities, helps me keep my life in perspective. It gives me a record of where I’ve been investing my time and energy, and it provides a semi-permanent home for my thoughts. More than once, I’ve looked through an old journal and been reminded of an old idea that I want to revisit, a major accomplishment that I should celebrate, or a difficult period that I’m thankful is over. The process of keeping a journal creates a structure both deeper and larger than my daily routine.

The Journal As Note-Taking System

On a more pragmatic level, here’s how my journal meets my note-taking requirements:

  • Mindless: Where should I record something? In my journal, of course. Since starting to use it at work for (just about) all of my notes, I’ve already noticed a reduction in friction. Previously, before I started to write something down, I would hesitate: does this go in Outlook? OneNote? On a scratch pad? Now, everything goes in the journal.
  • Mobile: Do I have my journal with me everywhere? Pretty much. My preferred size (5″ x 8″) isn’t as portable as a smaller, Field Notes-style pocket notebook, but it’s small enough for me to grab and carry just about everywhere. For the past 6 weeks, I’ve been walking out the door every day with a medium Moleskine and my Nomadic pen case, and it’s been great. On the rare occasion that I need a smaller format, I’ll grab one of the Field Notes I keep around.
  • Reliable: One of the theoretical downsides of using a paper journal is that the content is not searchable, but that’s not precisely true. While it’s not “searchable” in the Googleable sense of the word, it’s still a book, and there are many tried-and-true ways of increasing the utility of bound books. I’ve been refining my system for several years, so I’m going to split it off into a new section.

Extending the Journal

By itself, a journal isn’t much more helpful than a legal pad. Because it’s bound in that marvelous form of a codex, however, several ancient improvements become possible:

  • Page Numbers: As I complete each page, I number it in the lower outside corner. This small step creates a huge increase in the utility, because it allows me to create indices and cross-references.
  • Dates: I make sure that each day is clearly marked, usually at the top of a new page. Having dates on the page allows me to cross-reference my notes with my calendar: if I know that a meeting happened on a certain date, I can find the notes pretty easily.
  • Indexing: With earlier journals, I added topical information to the upper outside corner of each page to mark what is covered on the page. Currently, I’m using Ryder Carroll’s excellent Bullet Journal system to maintain an index in the front of the book, plus monthly calendars and to-do lists.

I also use several visual cues to organize my notes. I keep these pretty simple: open boxes for tasks that I need to complete, lines to separate one topic from another, large boxes to keep asides separate from main text, etc. I don’t have a formal system for this – I just do what feels right. I’ve recently added a few new ones from Ryder Carroll’s system.

A Work in Progress

My current process doesn’t lend itself very well to David Allen’s Getting Things Done system (which I try to use to keep myself organized, with its Projects, Next Actions, and Contexts), so I’m musing over ways to create good project and next action lists, perhaps at the back of the book. The aforementioned Bullet Journal method includes a way to create to-do lists for each month, so perhaps I will use those lists for my projects, then create a separate list for Next Actions.

The biggest improvement, however, always resides in the same place: me. No system for taking notes or tracking projects will work unless I’m regularly reviewing and updating the system, which means making time to review and update the system. That’s a practice I’m still perfecting.

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