How I Take Notes & Plan My Day

Back in college, there was a time when I would take an extra 12-month calendar that was lying around, write notes on the dates, and use it as my “planner.” I would also find old spirals, like my second grade spelling notebook, tear out the used pages, and use the leftover clean ones to write notes.

At one point, I had been gifted a few different small blank hardcover notebooks, and I used those. I would write the date and my notes below. It’s still pretty helpful because if I’m looking for info, I can go back to an old notebook and flip to the right date to find it. But even this wasn’t quite organized enough.

I realized I don’t like small 5×7-inch notebooks. They’ve got to be blank, not lined, and 8.5×11. I can fit and view more information on bigger pages.

Lined pages mess me up. Here’s why.

  1. They darken up the page, fill it up, and make it boring.
  2. They make it harder for me to control which words on the page get the most attention and importance.
  3. They don’t leave room for drawings.
  4. They don’t leave room for varying layouts of info.
  5. I don’t want to write in straight lines — or even horizontally for that matter — all the time.

The Search for an Unlined Notebook

As 2017 was fast approaching, I looked everywhere for a blank journal/notebook larger than 5×7 inches. It was impossible to find. I had recently used a beautiful pink hardcover unlined notebook from Half Price Books, but I think the company that made it had gone out of business. I even asked around about a bigger unlined notebook in a Bullet Journal Facebook group. No one knew where to find one. There may have been a Leuchtturm brand available, but I didn’t want to spend that kind of money.

In a rush, I went to Target and bought a giant sketch notebook. It was about an inch think and a hassle to carry around. I loved the massive white space in the pages. But it said “SKETCH” in giant letters in the front and looked unprofessional. Eventually I found $4 unlined notebooks on Amazon.  They were perfect. Eventually, I switched over to dot grid. It has the same feel of being unlined, but I can use the grid to keep things looking nice and event.

I use notebooks for about six months at a time before I run out of pages or the book gets too worn looking.

What My Pages Look Like

My favorite way to take notes is inspired by Mathias Jakobsen. (See the video on this page at 0:47.) You first draw a rectangle at the top of the page to write in the day and date. Then you draw a box around the page, leaving half a centimeter to the edge of the page all around. At the bottom of the page, you write your current location.

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I tend to use colored pens because I notice I can retain the information better when it’s in color. It’s easier to take a photograph of it in my mind. Black is so neutral, and thus more forgettable. I tend to use TUL retractable pens.

I have two page styles in my notebook. One is to write my personal notes. The other is to write work notes. So for each day, I may have two different pages. I write the day in block letters on my personal notes page, so I can tell the difference. My personal page is for morning gratitude notes, prayers, thoughts, and a to-do list for personal and side projects. I like to record good quotes I hear people say that I want to remember and marinate on further. I also note what’s working well, what’s not working well, and other lessons learned throughout the day or past weeks.

If we’re traveling, this page will include a packing list. Or if I’m carefully planning meals, it will include meals and a shopping list. I’ll often write it down first, especially if I’m in a writing mood, and then transfer it to apps that we use, so the info is in the cloud and easy to access when I don’t have my notebook around.

One thing I tried the first quarter of this year was to track goals by shading in the dates I completed key actions. It was motivating for me for a few key goals.

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On my work pages, I make a bulleted list of what I plan to do for the day. Then I number them by importance. On a good week, I’ll go into my online calendar and schedule in the priorities, so I don’t overfill my day or overestimate what I can get done. Things that get done get a check. Sometimes I’ll write the date completed next to the check mark. Whatever doesn’t get done is marked with a small right-pointing arrow and later migrated to the next day’s page. Whatever I decide to not do at all is crossed off the list.

When I have meetings, I write notes and action items.

For a few notebooks, I added page numbers to the corners of every page. Now I don’t care so much and don’t benefit much from it anyway.

Setting the Stage on the First Few Pages

On the first few pages of each notebook, I’ll set aside pages that will say something like:

  • 201X Reflection (Tidbits, insights, and new things from the past year)
  • 201X Vision (What I want to see happen in the coming year)
  • Mind map (A web of all the areas of my life or projects I would like to make progress around and the tactics I can use to get there)
  • Monthly goals
  • Quarterly goals
  • Weekly goals
  • Daily goals

I’ve done this the past 3-4 years and have not mastered the regimented goals part. Life gets in the way. Real life for me is more organic. For example, I don’t necessarily put this in my goals, but I cook meals a few times a week. I get my kids ready in the morning and then at bedtime. So there are natural rhythms of the day that happen that are important. I try to celebrate progress in these areas, too.

We highly value social time with friends and family, so we are intentional about that, but we also have to make room for other goals.

For me doing email marketing, landing pages, copywriting and graphic design for for-profits has been a goal. This is something I have to reserve early morning and late night hours to do. I tend to track and organize this work through a combination of pages on my notebook and online tracking in spreadsheets and notes.

For my next season, I’m going to see how the Bullet Journal works for me. This is a little outside of my usual notebooks because it is a 5×7, and I much prefer 8×10.

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