How I Set Up My Notebook

I have carried some form of notebook for the last seven years or so.  It started back at the tail end of grad school where I felt I needed a way to help me remember important appointments, meetings, and to capture to-do items.  I started off by purchasing a Moleskine weekly calendar, which was great, but my cheap student mind didn’t like the added cost of the specialty book, whereas I could make the same book from a regular, ruled Moleskine.  For the next two years, I would measure out the spacing and draw in the lines for the year.  I appreciated the simplicity of the task and found it almost meditative, however I grew tired of having to do this at the start of each year.

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Later, I switched from larger Moleskine notebooks to smaller, pocket books.  Over time, I adopted the Field Notes brand of pocket notebooks as my go-to medium to capture thoughts, though I do keep an assortment of notebooks on hand (or on my shelf) for specialty purposes.  The early days of Field Notes had me using a notebook until it was full, whether this was notes from a single month or from multiple months.

Eventually I settled on using one book per month, and started a fresh book every month, regardless of whether I fill the book or not.  In this post, I’ll show you how I set up a notebook for the month of January, and provide some commentary on my choices.

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The first step is to get a fresh notebook.  You don’t have to use Field Notes, but I like the brand and the quality of the product.  My only criteria when selecting a book is I prefer at least 48-pages that uses good paper and a grid pattern (either solid lines or dots).  The paper is important because I use a specific kind of pen (I’ve settled on the Uniball Deluxe Micro as my preferred pen) that can easily bleed or smudge on poor quality paper as I write leftie.

The next step is to go through and number all of my pages.  This is important because after I’m done with a book, I use an index (see below) to capture important pages that I want to reference in the future.  The index does not capture any of the standard pages I set up at the start of the month, nor does it capture my individual days.  Instead, it captures main to-do lists, important notes, or other things that I’ll need to find later.  For instance, I use these physical books to remember passwords I rarely need to type.  If I update a password, I note the date in my online calendar with a book reference (month, year, and page), so that I can go back and see what I set the password to.  This doesn’t work when I’m out of the house, but I find this helps with keeping my rarely used passwords secure (instead of constantly answering security questions to reset the password).

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After the index, I titled the second page my dream scratch pad.  This is where I can do pie-in-the-sky thinking about things I want to do, accomplish, strive towards, covet, etc.  To be honest, I rarely use this page, but I like to keep it on hand in the same place.

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Next, any major to-do items get carried over.  A lot of these have been on my carried-over to-do’s for some time, but I don’t want to forget about them (things like rolling over my passwords regularly, or little things I want to do around the house.  If to-do items can be grouped under a specific theme (say, specific home repairs), they get their own lists later in the book.  This page carries over everything else.

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Tracked items, left to right – (Gr – German lessons on Duolingo), (L – when I’m late for something), (D – when I’m having a down or depressed day), (H – when I have a headache; at the bottom of the page I have a scoring system for how bad they are), (Ex – days I intentionally exercise), (Fr – time intentionally spent with friends or family), (7 – nights I track seven or more hours of sleep on my Fitbit).

Next is my tracker page.  This is where I track habits and other regularly occurring items so I can see them at glance.  I list the dates along the left side (weekends get doubled-up so I can fit the entire month in), and each category of things to be tracked gets its own column.  Some metrics are good things to track, while some of them I want to use to monitor my general health and well-being.

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Since the entries per day are pretty short (not a lot of space), I keep this facing-page blank for additional notes on the month, if I need it.

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On page 6, I capture my intentions and goals.  I track goals and intentions a few ways.  First, I have a “soul,” “mind,” “body” theme which allows me to focus on specific areas of my life (soul – social, philosophical, spiritual, etc.), (mind – learning, planning, etc.), and (body – physical health and wellness).  I realize you can’t try and change too many habits at once and be successful, so these are just ways of helping me to prioritize things into themes, short-term and longer-term goals, and things I want to change.  If page 6 is my capture page, page 7 would be where I would focus myself to a limited number of things.  I would pick something from the previous page and devote more time or attention to it with specific plans and actions.

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On page 8, I track some specific health indicators – my weight on the scale (left side), and my waist measurements (on the right axis) over time (the x-axis).  Static views of single health metrics aren’t very helpful, so I’ve chosen to track weight and my waist as a better indicator of my overall progress in fitness.  I’ve also started tracking blood pressure, which I input results for the day the data is collected as the systolic/diastolic reading.

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Then, on page 9, I borrow a system I found on Reddit to track excuses.  This is where I can measure intentions against action.  For instance, if I set an intention to exercise and I skip it, I can capture what my excuse is for skipping it, assess whether it is legitimate (yes/no), and make notes on any ways I can mitigate the reality or implement solutions to keep my intentions.

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Finally, on page 10, I start my first entry.  Every day that I record in my notebook will receive a new page.  I put the date across the top, then fill in tasks for the day, ideas, interesting quotes, or things to remember.  Sometimes I’ll migrate thematic lists into this section, such as tasks I need to complete as Board Chair or for things around the house to repair.

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This is the system I currently use.  It borrows from a couple different sources, such as the original Moleskine planner I began with, elements from the Bullet Journal method, and good ideas I’ve found rambling through sites like Reddit.  The notebook set-up iterates over time.  I add and remove things depending on how useful I find them.  Some of the items discussed above might get removed soon since I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with them, and therefore are no longer useful to me.

It is a little tedious to set up a new notebook every 30 or so days, but on the whole I like the systems I’ve developed and have found it immensely useful in my day-to-day life.

Share with me down below what kind of systems you use to help keep yourself on top of things.  I’m always looking to borrow good ideas!  I hope you found something here that was useful.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

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Institutional Systems and Game Theory

One of the hardest lessons I grapple with is treating systems (especially bureaucracies) as a series of “games.”  By games, I’m treating it in the academic sense as a series of interactions between parties that has rules, outcomes/payoffs, and strategies.  Being the meek person that I am, I tend to default to the assumption that the stated rules are all that there is, and you are expected to follow the prescribed process if you are seeking an outcome.  The truth is, in most cases there are multiple strategies that you can use to seek out advantageous outcomes for yourself.  Depending on how the rules are set up, you can avail yourself of several options, both sanctioned and unsanctioned.

For instance, in the case of students, you need to achieve a certain grade to pass a course (say, a 55%).  There are a number of strategies you can use depending on what outcome you are seeking:

  • If you are seeking the highest grade possible – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours, learn the rubric, do well on assessments, and challenge grades to bump your marks up.
  • If you are seeking mastery of the content – you study the textbook, attend lectures, attend office hours to resolve unclear topics, research the topic, create good study notes, take practice tests, and learn from mistakes.
  • If you are seeking a moderate pass – you prioritize the work and tackle the highest value graded units to achieve at least a minimal passing grade, and you disregard low-return work that requires lots of effort for little ROI, you attend only the lectures required to get information you need, and likely get notes from peers.
  • If you are seeking a pass regardless of content mastery – you can cheat and hope you are not discovered by your professor, then deny any wrong-doing if caught or present excuses to justify your behaviour.  If that doesn’t work, you appeal using the institutions mechanism.

Something to keep in mind is that cheating is still considered at “legitimate” strategy as long as you don’t get caught, because the goal is to secure your desired outcome.  If you aren’t caught, it’s because your strategy beat out your opponent, and you won your outcome.  It might be that cheating goes against the system or the intended processes put in place, but if an adequate system to police the rules isn’t in place, you can exploit that strategy to your advantage.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not advocating for academic cheating.  I do my best to guard against cheating because I think it runs counter to my goals as a teacher.  I want my students to learn to play the game as I see it should  be played, because the skills and strategies used for my class are both useful and valuable outside of my class – the ability to read a variety of perspectives with an open-mind, the ability to articulate your position with evidence, the ability to connect ideas across different knowledge domains, etc.

I exploit the same rules when I help students navigate their way through the institution’s byzantine labyrinths and silo’d departments when they come to me with problems in their program.  I want them to get through their education with the least institutional friction and cost possible – school is hard enough and I don’t want them wasting time jumping through frivolous hoops because the systems aren’t set up optimally.

I sometimes feel irked or offended when I catch a student cheating, or catch someone lying to me.  I try to check myself in those instances because I know it’s not meant as a personal slight against me when these things happen; it’s because of the incentive structures in place.  A legitimate strategy is not available to the person, so they seek an alternative strategy to get what they want.  They are playing a game and their strategy is competing against mine when they submit plagiarized work, or hand me a fake ID at the bar I work at.  If my strategy is sufficiently robust, I can catch and counter their strategy.  But if I’m also using a sub-optimal strategy, then it’s more likely the case that their strategy will exploit my complacency.

It’s nothing personal.  It’s just how the institutional games work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Tracking Ideas – A Technological System

Here’s a cool trick you might find useful.

I carry a physical notebook with me pretty much at all times so that I can jot down to-do lists, ideas, quotes, etc.  While my commonplace book system is great, I wanted a better system for tracking those spur of the moment ideas that I want to file away for later, such as blog posts, vlog ideas, career ideas, etc.  I could record it in my notebook, but then I would either need a way to collect them at the end of each month when I switch to a new notebook, or I would be forced to copy them over month to month.

The system needed two things.  First, it needed to be mobile.  My notebook is mobile, but for the reasons above, it was proving to be inadequate.  Tracking ideas in a document or spreadsheet from my computer solves the ease of use problem, but it limits the mobility.  Similarly, just having a digital file on something like Dropbox is cumbersome because, while I can access it from my smartphone, navigating the file directory on my phone is tedious and updating files on a small screen is frustrating for something that I wanted to be quick and painless.

The second need, alluded to in the problems above, is that it needs to be frictionless.  The more complex a system is, the less likely I am to use it over time.  Hacks, systems, tricks, and tips are great, but if it’s a chore to use and implement, I tend to abandon them relatively quickly because, let’s face it, I’m weak-willed and lazy (see any of my posts about failing to go to the gym…)

With those two considerations in mind, I stumbled on an option and found inspiration in a video my vlogging partner, Jim, posted on Youtube:

 

I set about to appropriate his system and adapted it for my own use.

I created an IFTTT (IF This Then That) action that when I made a note from a homescreen widget on my phone, it would automatically save it to a designated spreadsheet in my Google Drive.

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I have it set up to just record the date and time of the note, and the notes content to the next empty row.

In Google Drive, I set up a new spreadsheet with multiple tabs.  This way, all the ideas come from my phone to the first tab of the spreadsheet.  From there, I can move the ideas to different tabs to better organize them by category.  In the green cells, I note where I moved the idea, then I hide the relevant row when the information is copied over.  This allows me to have all the ideas collected in one place (the front page), but completed actions are hidden to streamline the process.

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All that was left to do was set up a widget on my phone and start recording ideas.  The widget for IFTTT was already available as an option, so I didn’t need to download any extra applications.

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From my homepage, I tap the round icon at the top-right of my screen.

 

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From there, I type in the idea, usually with a preface comment to help me sort things later.

 

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I then tap the blue circle at the bottom of the note and it sends it to the spreadsheet. 

 

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It’s been a handy system so far.  I can access the sheet from my phone, but primarily I need it on my computer, so the cross-platform utility is great for me.  It also allows me to captures a wide variety of ideas without needing to put them to separate lists initially, whereas if I captured these in my notebook, it would be hard to sort, search, and categorize without dedicated lists.  I like the flexibility and the streamlined process.

Let me know if you have any systems that you find handy.  I’m always on the lookout for good ideas to test out.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan