Life, Personal Process

Keeping Notebooks

While contemplating my life, with a focus on things I do everyday, I decided to write about a tool that has become very important to me – a simple notebook.  (I prefer the 5″ x 8″ lined 80-page spiral-bound style as this fits easily into my bag.)  It is my personal “external hard-drive” and helps me keep track of my day-to-day activities, as well as providing quick storage of creative ideas and prompts.  I carry one with me every day; it’s always available for use, unlike the internet.

A peek at August of 2010

A peek at August of 2010 (checklist example lower right)

My system for TASKS
Over 20 years ago I worked with a woman who told me about how she kept track of tasks she needed to do.  I tried her system and it immediately helped me get organized at the office. I modified the idea a little and have used it ever since to make sure I get things done in all aspects of my life.

Basically my system works this way: If I am in a meeting and I am asked to take action on something, or if I am on the bus and something I need to do randomly comes to mind, I write this task down and draw a circle next to it on the page.  All my handwritten “To Do” lists have circles. (You can see a little bit of what this looks like in the photo above.  On the lower right, under the white post-it note, is a checklist of song lyrics I needed to copyright back in 2010.  All the circles are checked so I know I finished the copyrights.) I use these circles as a visual reminder that the task or action needs to be done.  When I complete the task I place a checkmark in the circle and I look for other open circles until all are completed and checked off.  If I have to report on the task (usually in business situations) I make a mark in the circle to tell myself I have started, and when I complete the item I add the completion date.

To recap here are the steps:

  1. Draw a circle next to the task reminder, or in the margin of the page near the item;
  2. As you start work on the task make a mark to break the circle, it will look like a Q now; (This step is optional – I only do this if I have to report to someone on the item and they might ask me if I had started work on the action);
  3. Check off the circle when you complete the task/action circle checkmark;
  4. Add date completed next to the check mark (optional – I only do this if I have to report to someone on the item in case they ask me when I completed the action);
  5. If action is no longer needed, X-out the circle;
  6. Periodically scan your notes looking for open circles – those are your outstanding tasks.

These little circles help me keep on top of my bills, payment due dates, follow-ups with my contacts, travel preparation, and all kinds of crazy “To Do” lists.

Some of my older notebooks

Some of my older notebooks in all their glory

In addition to all the everyday “boring” things I write down, these daily notebooks are where I collect my thoughts and make observations about what I am thinking and feeling at any given time.  Part of my introspection process involves creating collages, and each of the notebooks has a unique collaged cover.  These covers are created as I begin using a new book so the cover reflects things I am thinking about at the time.  On the back covers I write the month and year the book was created, and when it is full, the month and year completed.  For easy reference I store the notebooks in chronological order on my bookshelf at home.  I go back to them frequently to see what I was doing at a specific point in time, to remember when I met a particular person,  to locate a quote or story to use for a song lyric, or just for random inspiration!

Other STUFF I write about or do in my notebooks
I use a gluestick or clear tape to adhere a lot of different papers into my pages including ticket stubs, programs I have attended, business cards, photos, etc. You can see from my photos on this page that I use post-it notes to jot things down when I don’t have my notebook close by at the moment I hear something I want to keep.  Here are some other things I do:

  • I journal about special days, or perhaps a quick overview if it is a particularly fast-moving but special day;
  • Descriptions of places I have visited, special foods eaten, and things that I did;
  • Notes on projects I am working on, art projects, family things, de-cluttering plans, repairs that need to be done around my apartment, things like that;
  • Post-its and other notes that include things I have seen or overheard in passing on the street, while traveling, etc. – a LOT of these! (You can see some funny examples in the “peek at August 2010” photo);
  • Small collages — little thought pieces in images, relating to songs I am writing or studying, or other topics that interest me at the moment;
  • All kinds of quotes– including quotes from friends, movie lines, life stories told to me, and things I have said myself (I know, it sounds weird to quote myself, but sometimes I say things and when I hear it come out of my mouth I think, “hmmmm, that is interesting,” or, “wow, good song lyric.”)
  • Walnut ship design notesI write down or sketch creative ideas all the time.  (This is a sketch I did for some sailing ships with walnut shell hulls.  They came out pretty well and I gave them away as gifts.) These are things I want to do, or just crazy ideas that are interesting to me but not something to do right now, or ever.  (I am thinking of a time I sketched schematics for a pre-frozen dessert that could be sold from street carts in units and assembled per order- sounds complicated but it really was quite simple – I just don’t feel like spending my energy on a frozen dessert business.  I wrote the idea down anyway.)
  • Of course, the majority of my pages are song notes in process as I am always juggling a few song ideas in various stages of completion;
  • I keep track of notes from my weekly Jazz Workshop with Barry Harris and also things we have worked on at his chorus rehearsals, and this sometimes includes full song lyrics as he often does not distribute lead sheets but instead dictates the lyrics to us.


Rainy Afternoon

The inside back of one of my notebooks with collage

I love my daily notebooks, and I will admit that I have some other handy reference notebooks too including:

  • some for special trips I have taken;
  • one for passwords and website information;
  • several for my Italian language studies;
  • a couple for keeping a record of soft-block carvings and other artwork I have created;
  • one for logging all my digital sound files (which are stored on flash drives) so I will know where to find them once I have saved them;
  • and, a very small notebook that has a built-in elastic band (to keep it closed). I divided up the pages and added alphabetical headings and I maintain lists of song titles with the keys I sing them in and other notes, like tempo/style – very handy to have when I go to jazz jam sessions.



“Spring Forth” c. 2010



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