I realized that I had crossed a kind of Rubicon the other day while watching a TV cop show. The assassin was in custody, but she had pulled the classic “steal a piece of pen to pick the lock on the cuffs” trick. The cop found out as soon as he tried to click the pen, and rushed to the elevator – only to see the empty cuffs and and the improvised pick.
“Sloppy production,” I thought. “That’s not the kind of cartridge that goes in that pen…” Yep. I’d become one of those people, in the same way another expert I know shakes her head at the naming of plants, or the way another shakes her head at the way witches are portrayed. But that’s what happens when you dive into the deep end of something like visual thinking – you end up becoming very intimately familiar with the instruments of your craft.
Reducing the Barrier to Habit
Another aspect of this personal change has been to try and eliminate any obstacles to doing more visual work. No excuses! One of the easiest ways to do this was to create a “Visual Thinking Every Day Carry.” That is, making sure that the tools to do the work are always right at hand (or, in my case, left at hand). Over the months I’ve tried a few different things, and at the moment this is what I try to have with me at any given moment (links are affiliate where possible):
- MEKO Stylus: I confess, this is the least-used part of the EDC. I have it in case I want to sketch something directly into my phone – the weight of it and sturdy construction make it feel really good in the hand. It also has the round nub on one end and a more “fine point” under the cap. The idea was that if my iPad wasn’t around, I could still sketch digitally…but as you can see, I’m more likely to sketch on actual paper and then simply take a picture.
- SketchOne Pens: I remember seeing these particular sets of pens branded as “sketchnote” sets on Neuland.com and scoffing. “Any pen can be used for sketchnoting!” And that’s true, but when I was given one free at the end of my Bikablo training I realized: these are, in fact, what I wanted to use for sketchnoting. I have them in .1, .3, .5, and .7mm widths, and they are reliable, don’t bleed, and just plain work.
- FineOne Brush Pen: In spite of the resemblance to dreaded “chart junk” I do find that highlights and drop shadows work well in sketchnoting. This was also a freebie to try, and it’s the perfect companion to the SketchOne set. Bonus: it is refillable and has a replaceable nib.
- Pokka Pen: This is the poor man’s Fisher Space Pen (because I keep misplacing those). It’s a two-piece container that fits easily in a front pocket that you re-assemble into a full-size pen. It’s plastic, but not cheap plastic, and while I would prefer a more smooth roller ball ink cartridge it does in a pinch. Think of this as the “pen of last resort.”
- Pilot Parallel Pen: One of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten! This comes across as a calligraphy pen (with a wedge tip) but you can use it for fine lines as well. As you can see from the illustration, I have been using it to learn the Fraktur hand (well, kind of a calligraffiti style) and absolutely loving it. Practicing a hand (way of writing) is one of those things that you can do instead of checking your phone, by the way, and I find it remarkably relaxing.
- “Preppy” Fountain Pen: I love fountain pens, and they get very fancy and beautiful and also are touchy and finicky and you often feel bad about risking taking them into the wild. This pen, though, gives you the joy of a reliable fountain nib along with durability and economy (get it and two cartridges for less than $10US). While I use many different pens at my desk, this is one I carry with me everywhere as my default writing instrument.
- Baron Fig Pocket Confidant: I’ve written before about my addiction to notebooks. This particular choice was based on seeing Mike Rohde (the creator of sketchnotes as a practice) talk about his on the Lettering with the Masters course. It’s got a hard back which makes it easier for me to sketch things out, and the paper quality and such are unparalleled. It costs about the same as a moleskine (which I also love) or a Field Notes 3-pack (same) but just edges them both out in terms of size, quality, and ease of carry. I love the other brands (my family knows of my addiction and it makes holiday shopping easy) but this ultimately wins out.
YMMV & Planned Iterations
One of the biggest things I would do over if I could is to get blank pages in the notebook, not the dot grid. That choice was entirely based on me not feeling confident in my abilities as an artist. Now that I’m doing more sketching, I find those dots distracting and limiting.
Having so many pens also offends my inner minimalist, and there’s a part of me that wishes I could get away with one. Theoretically one good brush pen would be capable of doing pretty much everything I have, and I’ve had my eye on the Tombow Fudenosuke Dual Tip. However, at this point that would be simply feeding my pen addiction. It’s kind of like a greased rabbit hole; easy to fall down and keep on falling.
Let me know if you try any of these recommendations, and feel free to share your own favorites in the comments!
I can dream, can’t I?
All I want is one system, one place where I can organize my entire life, from the personal to the business to the lifetime goals, and have it mesh seamlessly with everyone else’s systems. Oh, and it should be fun to use, combining both the joy of a notebook with the pleasure of a well-tuned interface as well as the non-intrusive and intuitive ability to both take on new tasks and remind me of old ones without disrupting my day.
It would be nice if it was free, too.
If you’re waiting for me to wave my virtual hands in a flourish and say “…and here is is!” I’m going to disappoint you. Because what I’m finding is: yes, that is all too much to ask for.
I talked about the various planners and such that I’ve been trying out, and everything is either good or “not quite right.” For example, I did enjoy the Momentum planner…except that the layout was not really aesthetically pleasing, and printing out loose papers and having them on a clipboard just isn’t conducive to a mobile lifestyle.
Here’s an aside: ask any organizational consultant, they’ll tell you that aesthetic is important. The system you use needs to speak to your own personal sense of what feels right, because otherwise you’ll be reluctant to use it. The idea behind making something attractive is not a feature, it’s an essential element to making it work.
The Security of Situational Awareness
I’ve been doing a lot of pondering about the trope of the Lone Hero, Bucking the System and Overcoming All. I’m feeling, more and more, that this is a very destructive model of the Hero, at least in my life, and I find myself looking more and more for ensemble pieces, stories of teams of diverse people who come together because they are greater as a whole than as parts.
That’s a thought for a future blog post. But it applies to the search for an organizer, too! Rather than looking for One System to Rule Them All, perhaps it is possible to create a team of tools – things that work together, each with a particular advantage – that will give me the organization that I desire.
That desire, incidentally, is for a feeling of security. The idea that things aren’t slipping through the cracks, that I’m aware of what needs to be done and when — that’s essential to my own line of work, because no one is going to do that for me. That’s part of being self-employed, and it’s both a blessing and a curse. I can decide that this afternoon is going to be a Librarians marathon with chocolate custard on the couch, and no one can say otherwise!
But when the vendors for the event aren’t invoiced, and the tweets for the podcast client aren’t written, and the new video conferencing software isn’t configured for the meeting…then I pay the price.
With great freedom comes great responsibility.
Luckily, it also comes with nifty little organizational toys to play with.
The Current Combination
Here’s what I’m working with right now. It’s a rough system, it’s not perfect by any means, but it feels like I’m on the right track. It is basically three things that interlock but serve different purposes:
This is a freemium project management tool. It’s similar to another very useful app known as Trello, and I honestly can’t remember why we’re using this one instead of the other. However, it is what I use for projects that involve other people, because it’s got excellent shareability. Since I do multiple event plans with different teams of people, it is useful when I need to see what tasks need to be coordinated with others.
Ah, Omnigroup…they are very much like the person in your life who keeps popping up, being a friend (or lover) for a while, and then disappearing. Or, in some cases, being given up because they’ve become too high-maintenance.
Omnifocus is their Getting-Things-Done organizer, and I’ve tried it a few times, each time deciding it was too much trouble to continue using. I opened it on a whim a little more than a week ago, to see how the latest update had changed things…and started to really, really like it.
Maybe we just weren’t at a point in our lives before where it would work? I dunno, but the interface, the calendar, everything feels much more workable now. I’m probably going to shell out the exorbitant ($40) fee when the trial runs out, because it’s working well for managing my own projects – the ones that don’t involve other people. It also interfaces with Asana, so there is some easy cooperation there.
About the only thing I find annoying is that I haven’t yet figured out how to set a “start” time for tasks – only a “due” time. But that’s ok, because that’s where we get to the final member of the team:
Baron Fig Notebook
In the end, it is pen and paper. It’s using a variation of Mike Rohde’s Daily Plan Bar and bullet journaling and Getting Sh*t Done that completes the cycle of feeling like I’m on top of my day. Baron Fig notebooks just feel the best in my hand, and so that’s what I choose to use. Don’t get me started on pens; that’s a whole other rabbit hole down which this blog post does not have to go.
So here’s how this team works together, on a daily basis:
- Check Asana. I have collaborative boards with several projects, so I can see easily where they have completed parts of projects, where I fit into the process, and where they may have added new tasks that I need to complete. This is the overview of where things are now, or sitrep or status report depending on your preferred terminology. An added bonus is a Zapier script that takes any new item added to my Asana and turns it into a task in my Omnifocus.
- Check Omnifocus. I know, this seems like a redundancy, right? Except it’s not, because Asana was looking at how my tasks fit in with other people; Omnifocus is helping me see how my tasks fit in with me. I can put goofy personal things in there, I can have “maybe-someday” ideas, and it’s just different enough to give me a better perspective and generate my personal to-do list. It also integrates with Siri, which makes the whole “ubiquitous capture” idea simple as it’s ever been. “Add ‘check on the scheduled presenters’ to Omnifocus” and it’s done.
I also have to say that the new update includes a calendar integration that really appeals in the main window. This is what I use to figure out what has to happen today.
- Bullet Journall. The final step is to create my Daily Plan Bar with pen and paper, make a quick task list, with space for notes, a bit of gratitude journaling, and also a battle cry for the day (today’s is “Legatum non gloriae” – Legacy, not glory). This is the book I open at meetings, or when I’m needing to do some sketchnoting. It’s also what I use to go back and look at my days, kind of like a logbook.
So there you have my current progress in the Quest for Organization. Is it too much? Possibly. It’s not perfect yet, but it feels like it’s getting closer to what I need to get the things I need set and together.
Questions? Suggestions? I’d love to hear them…
This is somewhat different than the usual post. On the surface, it’s basically extolling the power of journaling to make life a little better. But the “too long, didn’t read” version would be this:
Teenagers especially can benefit from journaling. The creators of the NOSO Notebook (Not On SOcial media, get it?) have not only created a journal specifically designed for teens, they are also devoting a significant amount of the proceeds towards “teen wellbeing and mental health initiatives.”
For me, that’s the big selling point. Because there’s a lot of great notebooks out there (in the video, one of the creators has a Field Notes notebook prominently displayed on her desk). But if you’re going to buy a notebook, why not combine that with something that is also going towards the greater good?
Journaling Under Duress
Full disclosure: I began journaling about age fourteen, and it was under duress. I was raised in a religion that held up the journals and memoirs of the founding members in high regard, and it was encouraged as one of the many virtuous qualities a young man would have on his path to righteousness.
Of course, I resented that. I didn’t want to journal, and so a lot of my writing ended up being the furthest thing from righteous. I did not write about my faith in God, I wrote about my bitter resentment over the way the Baby Boomers had put us on the path to nuclear armageddon. I wrote about the crushes that I had on various people, and the heartbreak of unrequited (really: clueless) attempts to garner their attention.
One of the things I wrote a lot about was the way that I could see where people I cared about needed psychological care and counseling — and how the adults who could provide it didn’t see it. I was really resentful of that — and I can tell you that because I can still read those words written thirty-four years ago.
Finding Your Path
I’m not resentful any more — the benefit of hindsight has made me more charitable to the shortcomings of being an “adult” — but I still journal, and I still write whatever comes into my head. It’s by no means been a constant practice. Even the month of December has a whole week missing from my daily journal, and I’m somebody who’s writing a blog post telling you to journal.
Journaling might have been easier to turn into a daily habit if it had been fun from the beginning.
I mean, now I lust after notebooks, I thrill at filling my fountain pens with special inks, I have favorite mugs filled with hot beverage and a comfortable chair to do the writing…I make my journaling a pleasure for myself.
That’s what the NOSO creators have done. They understand all of the reasons why journaling is good for teens especially — but they went the extra mile to make the product itself interesting:
We want to give our budding teens something meaningful and intentional — something analogue to balance beautifully with their tech-filled social lives…our focus is also on it being not too prescriptive, so that it lends itself to any preferred use, be it for goal-setting, planning, ideation, writing, drawing or something else.
Along with that there’s a bunch of stuff about the materials, the paper, even the production process — but if you know a teen, this would be something that would be a worthwhile tool to put in their hands. It can be life-changing.
And if you don’t know a teen, I’d still suggest you back their project. Because somewhere out there there’s a teen who’s gonna need it.
I received no compensation from NOSO for this article, but I am a backer of their project.
One of the hazards of writing a personal development blog is that you end up with an embarrassment of riches. If someone stopped me on the street and said “Can you recommend a good to-do list app?” I’d could hook them up. “Tell me the pros & cons of GTD” and we’d have to get coffee to have the time. Recently my partner watched bemusedly as I looked at video after video on YouTube about Bullet Journals.
The question of which is best is kind of an American tradition. “The 10 Best” or “The Ultimate” or “The Only (whatever) You’ll Ever Need!” Maybe it’s my polyamorous nature, but hyperbolic statements like that tend to annoy me.
I’d much rather have something that is effective for what I want to do in the place I am at right now.
“I Want to Be That Organized”
There’s also the danger of feeling like you need to keep up with the things you see online. Never has the “highlight reel” been more evident than in some of those Bullet Journal videos! Every page with flowing labels and color-coded sticky notes and stickers and flair and…
…and then I look at my half-written-in scribbled-cover dog-eared pocket notebook and feel the Imposter Syndrome most sharply. I want to be like them! I think, and make plans for switching from Moleskine to Baron Fig to Leuchturm…except look, OmniFocus has a new update and there’s a video showing how it will break down all of my tasks, remind me of what I need to do when I’m in the place to do it, and in general turn me into the successful entrepreneur Mommy always wanted!
That’s a danger. It’s a form of what I would call “organization porn”, where you see unrealistic performative systems designed to arouse your own desire to organize as well. Followed by “special offers” for the tools that are “best” for everyone.
If it’s not pushing the metaphor too far, the idea that one organization system is best for everyone is as silly as the idea that one form of sex is best for everyone. And really, the true answer is the same: the best form of either sex or organizing is first measured by one question: Do you enjoy it?
Because if you don’t enjoy the organization system you’re trying out, you will not stick with it. Plain and simple. You won’t. I won’t. It changes something that’s supposed to make it possible to do more of what you enjoy into a time-suck doing something you don’t enjoy at all.
Kind of the opposite of what you’re going for, don’t you think?
Back to Fundamentals
And that’s where the embarrassment of riches comes in handy. Rather than have to pick one tool, I can examine where I’m at and then sort through the toolbox to see what looks like fun.
Right now, that’s back to the notebooks. Thanks to a Colors subscription to Field Notes (which I highly recommend, though mine has sadly lapsed) I have plenty of them to choose from, in a variety of layouts (lined, graph, sketch). I purchased an inexpensive leather “Traveler’s Journal” and am using that as my companion to work out the day’s tasks, to take notes, or to put in the odd sketch here and there.
The notebook feels good; the daily pages aren’t quite Bullet Journal worthy, but they are effective, and it feels good to check off the little “Y-M-J” letters after doing yoga, meditating, and journaling.
It’s not my only system — my computer, my phone, and my watch still help me dictate my day. But first it happens on paper, and that feels good. I also spent some time yesterday looking at my old notebooks from years ago, when I first worked on these paper schedules, and finding it nice to remember what I was doing when, and how far I’ve come and how much I’ve accomplished since then.
It’s just not the same, looking at a digital calendar. If you haven’t tried it, I recommend it. Next week I’ll show my layout and let you decide if it’s worth a shot.
Meanwhile: what tools do you enjoy using in your day-to-day? Or perhaps more useful: what tools do you NOT enjoy using, and how can that be changed?
”Dear intention at home, I love notebooks. Recently I was getting ready to go on a trip, and I was having a very hard time trying to figure out what notebook to take with me. I didn't want to take them all, because it would be too much and I would feel silly, but at the same time trying to figure out which one would be "the best" was just about impossible. How can I figure out what really gives me the "spark of joy" and what I really need to learn how to let go?"
Sincerely, Totally Not the Guy You Live With.
This question was put to me and I had to pause… How does one decide which item “gives the best spark of joy”? Especially when we don’t like to play favorites. Then there are the questions like “How many is too many?” and “Do I need a notebook for everything or do I need an everything notebook?”
For me, as a minimalist (okay, I’m getting better at it), I would suggest sitting down with a favorite notebook and making it one that is specific for your travel. I would find tabs or ways to easily break it into sections for each project. There can be a section for notes, a section for each work project, etc.
That way when you get home you can easily find the notes you took or ideas you had for those projects. Make it very uniquely your travel notebook.
If that does not work for everything you need, I might suggest you have one notebook for sketching, one for work notes and ideas, and one for non-work related ideas. This will limit the number of notebooks but give you more options.
I would also make these uniquely for travel. If you have them just for travel they will spark joy and the excitement of the adventure to come when you pick it up.
What ideas do you have? How would reduce your favorite items when packing for a trip?
Natasha Bounds, Intention at Home
Natasha started Intentionathome.com in the hopes of helping people find balance and relaxation in their environment and life. She works with people one-to-one to help them declutter and be mindful. Being in the present moment helps us all to let go of the things that cause us stress and weigh us down.
“Oh my god!” my friend exclaimed as she scrolled on her phone. “The news is even worse!”
She wasn’t wrong. Native Americans once again being oppressed by the U.S., transgender students put back into danger, plus all the leftover catastrophes-in-the-making that have marked 2017 so far.
She’s a smart cookie; she knows when to put away her awareness of social events and find solace in a book, a movie, drawing, walking, embroidering. But it occurs to me that I don’t necessarily have that skill all the time. So this is a reminder-to-myself through a reminder-to-you that it is not that hard to fill your brain with loving thoughts.
EspressoPerfecto.com, for Example
Michael York is possibly the perfect example of someone embracing their passion – in his case, the passion for espresso. His website is a beautiful tribute to everything about the drink: articles about caffeine content, recommended beans and machines, you name it. All of it is unashamedly enthusiastic, like any geek should be: I love this! Do you love this? Let’s share what we love about it!
One of the ways that caught my eye on his blog was “51 Scientific Reasons Coffee is Healthy.” While he does make the list out of verifiable studies, it’s still a personal list, and you can tell (I don’t think that female-bodied espresso enthusiasts would be quite as enthusiastic about number 49: “Perks up sperm!”).
That doesn’t matter. What matters is that by the end of reading this list, I wanted an espresso, and I know it’s not nearly my favorite drink (pour-over Mexican Kulantik with two spoons of sugar, that’s my vice). But his love for the drink is infectious; I can only imagine that when Michael gets discouraged, it’s not just the drink that perks him up – it’s things like this list and this blog that come to mind with every sip.
What Do You Love?
My friend, for example, shares with me a passion for notebooks. Natasha has looked on tolerantly as we fawned over the grid layouts of sketchbooks in stores like kids in a toy store. If we played a “50 Things We Love About Notebooks” challenge game, I bet we could fill the list in about three minutes, if not less.
And that would be a lovely list (in a lovely notebook, of course). So what do you love that much? Your kids? Your pen? Your car? Your state? Winter campouts with your wife?
Whatever it is, this might be the time to get out a pen and some paper (if you need a notebook recommendation, just ask me) and make a list of what you love about That Thing. It’s a reminder that, with all the bad out there, good still exists, along with that thing you love.
Hang on to it. You’ll need it in the years to come. I suspect, if you wanted, Michael could suggest an espresso drink to accompany it. But take the time to remember why you love it, and that will bring it closer to you when times are hard.
Oh, my, how I do love me some notebooks. It started way back in 2005, when I decided to take up journaling the old-fashioned way, writing Daily Pages every morning. At the time funds were very scarce, but I took advantage of a friend’s store discount and splurged on buying a Moleskine – “the notebook of Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso…” Like many, I fell into the worry of this book is too nice to soil with my banal scribbles. I remember the fansite Notebookism recommended a particular solution for this feeling: hurl the notebook, as hard as possible, against a wall.
Since then I’ve always had a notebook – in fact, usually I’ve had more than one. There have been times when I’ve had, either in my pockets or in my satchel, up to six notebooks total. Why would I possibly need all of these? Well, let’s see:
- In my breast pocket was a small Fieldnotes memo book, usually graph paper. This was my ubiquitous capture – for the notes that had to be written down NOW. The gift of a Colors subscription to Fieldnotes was one of the best presents I’ve ever received – I highly recommend it.
- In my jacket pocket was a homemade midori-style leather notebook with two more Fieldnotes memo books tied into it. One was blank-page style, filled with sketches. The other was lined, designed for more deep thoughts, lists, etc.
- In my satchel, if I was traveling, you’d find my daily journal – an acid-free archival paper notebook held in a leather cover. I’ve had a lot of versions of the daily journal – my progeny are going to have fun with that – but this one seems to be the most satisfying.
- If I was at a convention, I would likely have my Sketchnote Book with me – a laboratory notebook that a friend who worked for SpaceX gifted me. It’s giant, it feels totally scientificky, and I love the space it gives me to sketch workshops or ideas.
- After a memorable talk with Mike Rohde I decided to give the Baron Fig notebook a try. This is my daily notebook – filled with notes from my coding class, meetings with life-makeover partners and mastermind groups, brainstorms, class outlines, and occasionally more sketches.
While I do like a lot about the Baron Fig – and the very-similar but totally-purposed SELF journal – I suspect when it’s full I will be going back to the moleskines. Why? There’s just something about the feel of them that I love, the way the cover goes from black to covered with stickers over the months that I use it, and the feel of the paper and binding that appeals.
How about you? What are your favorites for writing, drawing? Do notebooks have a special place in your life? If not…I heartily suggest you give them a try. They can change the way you look at the world. As the Fieldnotes slogan goes: I’m not writing it down to remember it later…I’m writing it down to remember it now.
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