There's something very pure about the process of drawing and working with paper. It's the ultimate direct manipulation — you sit down, there's nothing on the page. You work with your hands. By the time you get up, you've created something. It's powerful, electric. In art school, I carried paper notebooks as well. Sometimes with class notes, sketches or more. But my current paper notebook technique started to come into focus about ten years ago. That's when it shifted from being a space for illustration and drawing to being a tool for reflection and thought. The essential principle behind the notebook is that it's a tool for thinking — in many ways, I use it as a personal, portable whiteboard. A space to throw ideas and try wild things.
I have some friends who produce beautiful artifacts of notebooks, where the thing itself becomes a piece of art. That's fine, but it's not my technique, nor do I recommend it as a tool for thinking. For one thing, if you've sunk hundreds of hours into your notebook, it puts a pressure on you to keep the quality high. You won't be comfortable taking risks, drawing something ugly, or jotting down a shopping list next to a sublime illustration. So I prefer casual, cheap, infinite notebooks. One way to think about it — if you were using cheap loose leaf paper, just individual sheets, there's no pressure to keep the quality high. While I don't have quite that level of disposability for my work, it has many benefits. Being able to cheaply fill pages gives you a certain generosity and risk taking ability. Working on loose leaf paper might be a good way to start.
Nowadays, I spend about six hours a week just working in my notebooks. It provides me with a level of clarity and it would be hard to imagine making a major life decision without one. Whether weighing pros and cons, making to do lists, planning calendars, brainstorming names for a project, drawing thumbnail sketches of page layouts, or just greating satisfying shapes and patterns, keeping a notebook is essential to my process, and I recommend it to almost anyone. I fill about three notebooks a year.
WHY IT WORKSSo, what is the actual technique of working with a notebook? To me, it's about separating out a time and a place for the habit. I like to go to a coffee shop or sit at my desk and work on it. Ideally without a computer to distract me. It’s just too easy to slip into messaging or reading things. The cup of coffee is essential: it acts as an external timer, by the time I'm done, I'll have arrived with some clarity. So I just sit and sip and think. Ideas grow to fill the space. Working on paper helps find me clarity and organization. It gets things out of the swirling abstraction of my head and puts them somewhere quiet and safe for future reference. The notebook also shows me about how much energy and enthusiasm I have for an idea. Did I easily fill a page? A spread? Many pages? Sometimes an idea is just a little thing, and writing it down gets it out of your head. Sometimes it’ll just grow and grow after writing it.The most common things in my notebook are a mix of lists and brainstorming — a chance to reflect on what has come before, and what could come ahead. Things to do, places I want to go, people I want to see, timelines of the past, lists of abstract ideas (daily habits of people who live in the city, predictions for the future of technology). Working in your notebook is like having a conversation with yourself. There's something about writing things down which changes the nature of thought, makes it a little more organized. It's hard to articulate why. I believe that it's like having a conversation: the act of trying to squeeze your abstract thoughts into words changes their nature, makes them harder and more focused.
I use a specific structure in my notebooks — generally, each page or spread is dedicated to a specific idea or project. I'll write that idea at the top, and start filling the page. There's a fairly linear composition to the page, starting in the upper left. The upper right corner of the page will have actionable items — to do lists. This is a variant on The Action Method by Scott Belsky. Note that my to do items usually start with a verb: "Think about X" "Design Y", "Write to Z" — or they'll be prefixed with a heading: "Things to research:" And the bottom margin of the page often has unrelated ideas which pop up — interesting crumbs that need to go somewhere.
EQUIPMENTI use a $3 spiral-bound, unruled notebook from Muji, a Japanese homegoods store which I consider the Japanese version of Ikea. The quality is only so-so, but that's what I like about it. My father used to use precious notebooks with watercolor paper that cost $20, but I always found them too precious and lacking in pages. I feel very strongly that spiral-bound notebooks are superior, as opposed to notebooks with a book binding like Moleskine. A bound book is always trying to close, whereas a spiral bound notebook sits flat on a desk, no trouble at all. I can fold it over on itself, which turns it into a flat, holdable object that I can use while standing. Another benefit — the pages in a spiral bound notebook can be cleanly torn out, allowing you to make crazy mistakes or generously gift a stranger who needs a piece of paper. I find the size is really ideal, the one that I get has a unique benefit of being able to be tucked into the back of my pants over the small of my back while I ride my bicycle. Really.
Some people prefer pen or pencil. I'll use both, with a bias towards pen nowadays — there are just many extraordinary pens in the world. When I use pencil, I prefer a soft lead, which can tend to smudge. But find a good stationery store and find a pen you love, ideally one cheap enough that you won't mind when it gets lost. Pen Type B is an amazing variety, or the pens from Muji have great lines as well. Fountain pens are probably a bad idea to keep in your pockets, they can be unreliable and leak at the worst times. I keep my most frequently used pens in a tin soup can on my desk.
HOW TO START
l always put your name and phone number on the first pages of your notebook, just in case it gets lost, alongside the date I started the notebook, which I’ll eventually follow with the date I end it after I complete the book. This makes organizing your personal collection of notebooks easier in the future.I use different parts of the notebook for different purposes. Most people will start writing from the front of the notebook, but what about the back, where the endnotes would be? I put work related projects in the front, while the back is for personal notes, planning, and reflection. An added benefit: when you carry a notebook, people will boldly ask to look at it. But they'll almost always start from the front and never even know that all your juicy personal secrets are hidden in the back pages. There are infinite things you could put in a paper notebook, in addition to the paper whiteboarding technique above. Here are a few:Journaling: In theory, we all know what journaling is. A chance to reflect on our day, download and process our thoughts. Some people focus on what actually happened, a written photograph of the events of their life, while others will include their personal reflections and emotional states. It can be a form of therapy, committing your thoughts to paper like that. I personally prefer digital journaling, in part to save paper, and in part because a password on a journal allows me to not have to self-censor, I can be as real and raw as I want because no one else can see my writings.Morning pages: This is a technique popularized in the book The Artists Way. It's a bit like stream of consciousness journaling — your goal is not to produce a record or something to be read in the future, but instead to get your thoughts and emotions down on the page. Much easier, and fun. The author claims that it can be cathartic in helping someone become creatively unblocked. I think it works.To Do lists, Bullet Journaling, and Getting Things Done. These are two organizational techniques which have taken off in the past few years. The central idea behind them is that you need to get your to do items and desires out of your head and onto paper. Once they're on paper, you can look at them, manage them, take care of them. Bullet Journaling is an elegant techique for organizing your to do list. I use my own variation on it — the idea behind it is rather than create one tier of to do item ("is it on the list? if so, I should do it..."), have multiple tiers with different priorities ("I would ideally like to do all the items on the list, but I only have to do the ones with a star next to them")
Taking notes would be about capturing items which someone shares during a meeting or conversation: things to follow up on later. A very satisfying pursuit as well, and once you start relying on it, hard to get away from. Taking notes on paper is less distracting than playing with a digital device during a meeting. To pull out your phone to take a note makes you look distracted, like you're not paying attention to the person talking, whereas jotting something in a notebook can make you look like you're paying a lot of attention.
Instagram and the internet now has a lot of beautiful photographs of notebooks replete with tidy geometric handwriting. Don't feel bad if your handwriting is terrible. Remember: your goal is to clarify your thinking, not to create an artifact. If you were working on a whiteboard, you wouldn't worry as much about your handwriting and more. Treat your notebooks the same way: never feel shame. Or, if you want to improve your handwriting, just a little discipline and time can turn it into a meditative practice. Handwriting was once an art — a graceful discipline. By learning to control your hand, you can open up all sorts of possibilities.
WHY WORK ON PAPER
Presumably, you have some systems in place for going through life. Or perhaps you have a well-organized mind which contains everything it needs. I have found that keeping a notebook has allowed me to think further, faster.Ultimately, random recall is difficult. Our brains can supposedly only remember seven digits before they start overflowing. Similarly, trying to remember seven arbitrary people is difficult. Something is always falling off the list, and you can barely remember which names you've already recited. Yet with paper, recall is effortless. Your memories live in a place. Just go to that place, and they're waiting for you. Paper helps you to get away from the distraction of screens and messaging, to just sit and think. It binds you to one train of thought more than just sitting and thinking, where your mind can wander far, fast.As for putting to do lists on paper: There’s something really beautiful about having evidence to show everything that you’ve accomplished. Digital to do items just disappear after you’ve checked them off, wheres a paper list will last, allow you to see what you were working on many years ago.At a minimum, a notebook is like a time capsule or a photograph of your thoughts — it allows you to travel back to who you were, way back when.
But be careful, working on paper can change your life.