A co-worker asked: “What’s your favorite pen and planner? I want to improve my planning and note taking and a physical object may help me” My answer was somewhat long and I thought I’d share it.
That’s both an easy and a hard question.
For pens, I like the Pilot G-2 in the 0.7mm size for a disposable, but to truly enjoy the writing experience I recommend finding a combination of fountain pen and ink that speaks to you. I’m really enjoying the Pilot Metropolitan, usually with a fine nib, which is the equivalent of a European extra-fine nib. Pilot is Japanese and their nibs run narrow, which I like. One of my Metropolitans has a calligraphy nib which I don’t use for casual notetaking but do use for “headings”.
For inks, I’m using two incredible ones from Pilot — hoteison is a near-black in the green family, which is in the pen with the calligraphy nib, and fukurokuju is a vibrant green that is my main note-taking ink right now. I’m also thrilled with an ink called oxblood by Diamene, which I use for my schedule (see below). And I have a couple of other inks that I’m experimenting with, but those are my main three right now.
I also have a Pentel 8-color mechanical pencil that takes a little getting used to but is critical to my ‘system’
For the planner, my needs have changed over the years. We do so much time management in Outlook and on our phones that I no longer feel the need to maintain a formal “planner”. I have a notebook, and I have a particular system for using it, which I’ll explain.
For years I was just using the medium spiral-bound notebooks that Adobe stocked in the supply cabinet. That’s certainly the easiest/least expensive starter option.
A couple of years ago I upgraded my experience to the Filofax Notebook series, in part because I wanted something slim which I could fold back on itself (like the spiral notebook) and which I could use while it’s balanced on my knees, and in part because I wanted the ability to add/remove/rearrange pages. What is unique about the Filofax Notebooks is that the binding is very much like a spiral notebook — very low-profile, not like a three-ring binder and not like the disc systems that Levenger calls Circa, Staples calls Arc, and others sell under other various names.
To have the pages be stiff enough to work with this system, they need to be on the heavier side, but that also makes them much more rewarding to write on, especially with the right pen and ink.
The challenge has been finding the right refill paper for the Filofax (which is not an issue with the Gel pen, but is an issue with a fountain pen.) I don’t like the line spacing on the Filofax papers; it’s too narrow for me. For a while I was buying paper from a company called Unpunched Refills but they seem to have gone out of business. I’m now using a high-end HP printer paper and I wrote a Python script using ReportLab to print exactly the kind of lines I want, and then I use a paper guillotine to cut each sheet down into an approximation of A5 paper and a Staples Arc hole-punch (which is close enough to the spacing of the Filofax notebook).
OK, so that covers pen and paper. Now to describe my system, which is always a work in progress.
At the start of the day, I write the date in double-high letters/digits. For a while I was making an art project out of that, but the key thing is that it should be a top-level heading. Some days I force a new page, some days I just continue from the previous day.
On the right side of the page, under the date, taking up about 1/4 to 1/3 of the page width, I copy down my meeting schedule for the day: Time, who the meeting is with, and back when we were in the office, a third column with an abbreviation for which conference room was reserved. (This was when I fixed up appointments which didn’t have conference rooms; it also means that I can glance down at my notebook as a meeting is winding down and trivially remind myself what’s coming up, where I need to be, if I need a break between meetings or whom to alert via Slack if it looks like the current meeting will run over, etc.)
I have started marking a + or a – next to a meeting at the end of that meeting to indicate whether, in retrospect, it was a good or a poor use of my time. I also make sure that “lunch” and a mid-afternoon “coffee” break are included in that schedule, because otherwise I skip them and I get grumpy.
For a while, I would also write my current high-priority to-do items in the same column underneath the dates. Lately there have been too many of them and they’ve moved into the main column.
I like to use a different color (currently Oxblood) for the schedule so it is visually distinct from the rest of the page. I also sometimes draw a vertical rule between it and the rest of the page.
On the main part of the page (which takes over the full width once it gets below the daily schedule) I then recopy my to-do list. As I said above, I used to do this underneath the schedule but it got too long; I also used to use the bottom of the schedule/todo column to keep a list of non-work reminders and to-do list, following the principle that if I don’t have it written down I’m going to stress out about forgetting it, but once it’s written down I can forget about it. That got lost in the pandemic craziness and I should bring that back.
The format of the to-do list is also somewhat specific. Each item starts with my drawing a square and using hanging indent if things run onto more than one line — but I try to avoid having them be that long. An item which I should do in the next day or two is indicated by lightly shading the square orange (using my Pentel); an item which must get done today is shaded in red; an item which I’ve written down to remember but won’t be an active to-do in the current week is shaded light blue.
When I start work on an item, I draw a dot in the middle of the square. When work is significantly done but must be paused, I draw a single diagonal through the square. When the item is complete, I draw both diagonals (an X). An item handed off to someone else gets filled with a right-pointing triangle. An abandoned item gets a horizontal line through the box.
I look over the previous few days’ unfinished to-do items and recopy the ones that are still top-of-mind, high-priority and undone. This doesn’t mean that anything I fail to copy over has been abandoned; this is a way for me to reassert the priority order. When I’m looking for “what should I do next?” the order is basically: Anything marked red for today; anything marked red from previous days that I declined to recopy; anything marked orange for today; anything marked orange from the last few days that I failed to recopy; anything else non-blue. Sometimes this means I get to X off multiple boxes when something has been carried forward, which gives a nice sense of clearing the decks. And sometimes an orange item ages out of the system and never gets done. As someone said to me recently, “We all have to drop things on the floor; the secret to success is making sure you drop the right things.”
As the day goes on, I add new items to the list. Maybe they are action items coming out of a meeting, or out of a Slack message or an email. Or maybe they come out of an idea I just had. Or maybe they are loose ends from another task. No matter, they simply go on the page as they come up. I also make heavy use of drawing the Slack logo or an envelope icon along with someone’s initials so I can find the original item. I guess JIRA numbers are going to reappear in my notebook now, too.
I’ve also started adding + and – indications in the margin once a to-do item has been worked on, to indicate whether it was a good or poor use of my time.
When a meeting starts, I use the main text part (where my to-do items have been accumulating) to start taking notes. I start on the left side by writing (in large, heavy numbers) the time of the meeting, in a box. That provides a visual separation. Then I just take notes, leaving enough of a left margin that if a to-do item comes up, I can draw a square (which functions like a bullet) and add the to-do item in the context of the meeting it came from. If appropriate I shade in the box as soon as I know what the importance is. I then switch back into note-taking mode.
The presence of a square in the left margin will help me not lose my action items; the use of color also ensures my attention. If the item is done by end of day, great; if not, it will almost certainly be recopied the next morning. So I’ve saved myself the effort of maintaining and correlating separate pages for meeting notes versus to-do reminders; it’s all one thing.
At the end of a meeting, if the next thing is another meeting, then I can rely on the timestamp block to separate things; otherwise I use three heavy short diagonal strokes to indicate that I’m returning to “loose” notes and to-do items. (This is borrowed from orchestral scores that use those sorts of strokes to separate one system from the next)
Sometimes I essentially have a “meeting with myself” — design ideas, questions I am pondering, architecture diagrams, etc. Those function like any other meeting — if I’m formally reserving time with my brain then it goes into Outlook and goes into my daily schedule. Even if it’s informal, my notes go into the main text block just like any other meeting notes.
I do have separate sections in the notebook for particular long-running things where I want to keep related notes together. For example, I have a section for certain data-annotation projects, one for my thesis, one for architectural sketches for our big infrastructure initiative, etc. With the Filofax notebook it’s easy to move things around and to mix lined, blank, and dot-grid pages.
So that’s my system. It’s evolved over time, and in writing it up I’ve been reminded of things that I used to do that naturally attritted and that I might want to restore. I’d sum it up with these principles:
- There is no better way to remember things than the physical act of writing them down, and this is even more effective the more you are physically engaged in the act of writing — by choosing a pen, ink, paper, and handwriting style that draw you into the tactile and visual experience of committing an evanescent thought into a material object.
- Use color, visual grouping, and icons to help organize your thoughts and make things easy to find
- Recopying information is a feature, not a bug. Sure, electronic to-do lists don’t forget things, but they also don’t force you to reprioritize your queue every morning. Making my first work-related act each day be hand-copying the date, my schedule for the day, and my commitments to myself and others helps me clear my mind; establish priorities, goals, and expectations for the day; close open loops; and consciously choose what gets pruned instead of simply dropping random things on the floor.
Note: I mentioned some specific brands and products in this blog post. I don’t get any commissions from anyone. And I’m sure this would be more effective with pictures, but my actual notebook contains stuff I can’t share publicly and this took long enough to write that I’m not going to fake up a page today.