How to Use a Notebook Correctly - My Simple Guide

For better or for worse, I spent most of my childhood in a military boarding school in South Africa. At this school you would never find a student without his pen and small notebook. That’s because it was a punishable offence for a junior officer to not have his pen or notebook with them - even while they were wearing civvies.

This also meant we were taught a very simple method on how to use a notebook correctly. I’m surprised to see people have either never heard of this method, or have the most complex notebooks I’ve ever seen. If it involves sticky notes, then it’s already too complex. (You can thank my wife for making me write this article because at first I thought this was mostly common knowledge). Here it is:

All of my notebook’s pages are numbered, and I always let the first four pages of my notebook be my Table of Contents. (I manually number my pages in big batches every now and then). I keep track of months in my Table of Contents so that I can quickly jump to a specific page number to find the beginning of that month. I also keep track of important notes like “ideas for new team structures” or “call with phone company about my order”. Basically, I put the page numbers of each month and other meaningful pages into my Table of Contents. It’s something I learned in cadets as the proper way to organize and use a notebook.

That’s it! Just track your page numbers and maintain a Table of Contents. It’s “just enough process” (I really like that idea).

"Notebook with table of contents example"

Also, I have a reminder written in the beginning of my notebooks (just a habit I’ve built over the years, I guess). It should give you an idea of the purpose of the notebook.

This notebook is my second brain. This notebook is how I work through problems in my head. This notebook is only for taking notes. This notebook is not where I manage my tasks. As soon as I have time, I should get actionable items out of my notebook and into the right place.

I’ve been paperless for six years now - that includes reading books. (I’ll plan to write about being paperless and my minimalist lifestyle sometime in the future). When I was rigidly paperless I used Evernote for note-taking and it was great! I loved being able to search through all my notes, view them on any device, share them with friends and most importantly I loved that I can see my notes back to 2010 and know that they’re safe (unlike losing a notebook).

But after three years of using Evernote I went back to carrying around a notebook. Product Management is about problem solving, trying to understand big problems and navigating uncharted waters (I don’t get paid to take notes). Nothing let’s me chew on a problem the same way I can with pen and paper. “A problem well understood, is a problem half solved”, right? I’d take clarity and solved problems over any of the benefits I used to get from using Evernote.