As my wife and I were watching some of the Olympic coverage, we caught a recap of the finals for the women’s high jump event. I was always terrible at high jump as a child, but I stand at around 191cm (over 6-feet tall), so watching the athletes jumping heights that would clear my head instils a lot of awe in me. One jumper in particular caught my eye – silver-medalist Nicola McDermott from Australia. After each of her jumps, the camera would catch her diligently writing in a notebook.
I have heard of athletes who meticulously journal to help with performance psychology, but this was the first time I caught it live. You can learn a bit more about what she records after each jump in this Guardian piece. One quote from the piece caught my eye:
“The 2.04m – I gave myself a 10/10 for that jump, the execution,” McDermott explained. “I felt the clearance in the air. But the lack of experience with the timing meant that it just didn’t happen today.”
I like that she framed it not as a failure of her abilities, but instead a lack of experience with the execution. Instead of seeing it as “I can’t do this,” it’s “I haven’t done this yet.” The productivity sphere labels this as an example of growth mindset, and given the stakes of the Olympics it’s inspiring to see an athlete have such an upbeat, positive attitude that would likely cause me to beat myself down in defeat.
While mere mortals like myself typically go through the motions of any given action, Nicola’s journaling habit and mindset is worth modelling as a method of providing yourself with immediate feedback and a view from without – one that gets you out of your own head. It also takes ownership over the process, because it forces you to break the activity down into discrete parts that you can focus on and improve.
Congratulations to Nicola on her personal best, and the example she sets in performance excellence.
Previously, at the start of the notebook I would collect a running series of to-do items. Most of the items at the top of the list would be things that had been carried-over for multiple months, with a few small items at the bottom that likely were first jotted-down in the previous month. I found that I was continuously copying out the same items month-over-month and the list was growing. On the one hand, if the thing isn’t important enough for me to complete in a reasonable amount of time, it could be the case that it’s not important enough for me to carry-forward and that I should just drop the task all together.
Yet, I felt that some of the tasks were things I’d want to complete “one day” in the undefined future, but that I had lots of other pressing things that needed my attention first. Or, some tasks would require a fair amount of planning or coordination, and so I would tackle it after an adequate amount of lead time.
Some time ago, I created an account on Trello, but it was sitting unused as I didn’t know what kind of boards I would find useful. This seemed like the perfect experiment to help me remain flexible.
I set up several columns (buckets) of items. In the far left, I labelled the list “Pool” and dump in all to do items. Within each of the cards I can make notes or sub-lists to help keep me on track of things. At the start of each month, if there is something I don’t want to carry forward into the new book, I put the item into the bucket.
Next, is the “Planning Phase” bucket. The beauty of Trello is I can drag cards from one column to the next, so when I’m ready to move stuff from the Pool to another phase of activity, I can easy drag-and-drop. Items in the Planning Phase might require me to do research or make purchases in preparation to work on the project.
If no further planning is required, I move it into the “Active” column. When a task is active, it’s something that I’m placing priority on and is meant to remind me to carve out space in my schedule to address.
Sometimes, a project needs to be put on hold. I created a bucket to put tasks that are underway but I’m not making active progress on. Items in this bucket might require someone to get back to me on some action of detail, or maybe I need to wait until a future date to complete the tasks. Whatever it is, if I don’t want to move a task back into the pool column, I place it here and make a note of why the tasks is in limbo.
“Completed” is my win column – it gives me a chance to see what I’ve crossed of my list and as the column grows, I can take satisfaction in my accomplishments.
I created an “Abandoned” column because sometimes I will choose not to complete a task but I don’t want to delete it outright. Maybe it’s something that’s still important, or maybe I missed a window but I want to be reminded of it.
Finally, for tasks that occur regularly but infrequently, I have a column so that I can see when the last time was that I finished a task, and remind myself that it will need to go back into the active column (e.g. changing my tires, changing the furnace filter, etc.).
I’ve been using this revised system for a few months and it seems to be satisfying my immediate needs. It both cuts down on the number of items I need to manually copy from book to book while allowing me to indefinitely store things in a user-friendly format – effectively marrying my love of analogue with the convenience of digital.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.