Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

Tom MacWright

Paper notes

From 2006 to 2016, I wanted to be the kind of person who carried a paper notebook around. I bought nice notebooks and consistently got halfway through each one before abandoning it and giving up again.

In 2016, everything changed all at once. Every month since I’ve finished a paper journal. Here’s what I changed and the flaws that I discovered in my previous attempts.

Time not topics

Paper notes are append-only: treat them as such. The unlimited flexibility of computer note-taking gave me warped expectations of paper notes, and early in my journey I’d try to maintain notebooks about certain subjects. I tried to keep notes about a certain book in one contiguous section, add a table of contents at the beginning, and stay organized.

Organizing paper notes like digital notes is a fool’s errand. The only organization strategy that I’ve found that works is this one.

The only consistent structure is time. Notes go forward in time. You write the date span of notebooks on the cover, and the date of notes on the pages, and keep the notebooks in order. Try to keep all notes from a certain point in time in the same notebook.

Summarize topics when you finish notebooks, never when you start. Add a list of topics to the front cover (inside or outside), and then after a year, summarize the topics from all notebooks in another notebook.

Simplicity not heaviness

Durability, portability, and capacity are part of the same continuum. An 80-page notebook will probably need a rigid cover, like the kind on a Moleskine or Leuchtturm notebook. That’s the kind that I tried using for a long time – I was hesitant to sacrifice the fanciness of that for something that was pocketable. I was completely wrong about that: when I finally switched to Field Notes, I understood the other, personally better corner of the space. The small notebooks are delicate, and start breaking down after a month being carried around in a pocket or a backpack, but – at 48 pages long, by the end of that month, you’re about finished using it anyway.

Note box

Taking notes is useless without a place to put them when you’re done. Continuing on the theme of Field Notes fandom, I bought their ‘Archival Wooden Box’, a wildly overpriced but perfectly-sized… box… made to hold finished notes. Key to this strategy is that your notebooks are precisely the same size, so that they line up neatly and if you mark a corner of the notebook with its start & end date (as I do), that corner will fall in the same place for each notebook in the stack. This also gives you a place to add structure with dated & labeled dividers, so it’s easier to hunt down a specific notebook later on.


I also take digital notes: Day One as a digital journal, and The Archive for work-related or reference notes. Like with todo lists, I suspect those applications will change and be replaced over time, but thankfully as I’ve started to understand my own habits and preferences, that change has slowed.

January 02, 2019  @tmcw