Organizing Life, Scene I: The Notebook

Of all the tools in your arsenal, without a doubt the most important is your pocket notebook. Notebooks are the obvious precursor to PDA's and computers, and still have the upper hand in that they are quickly accessible, absolutely customizable and completely unique. No other technology will allow you to easily compile lists, sketches, calendars, notes, plans, links - exactly the way you want them.

Where to begin?

One of the most popular notebooks available is the moleskine. Why? Because it's the classic - the notebook of Van Gogh, Hemingway and Picasso. Since it is so popular, it is very easy to find, though as far as notebooks go, it is pricey, though judging by demand I am expecting it to be of a quality to match. Of course Moleskine is not the only notebook out there, so shop around and pick what is best for you.

My suggestion: buy your journal from an independent bookstore and support your local vendors. If you can, get something locally made or fair trade - and of course, the notebook has to feel right for you.

In the Vancouver, BC Area, i'd suggest Oscar's Art Books (at Granville and Broadway)

Picking a style

My moleskine is a pocket-size blank notebook. I prefer the blankness, because it is versatile for including drawings, and for writing more haphazardly, which consequently maps better my scatterbrained ideas. They also offer ruled and squared notebooks, in regular style or journalist flip-style. The total listing of their products can be found here. It's a good idea to look them over in store, and then take time to browse the rest of the store while you think over what suits your needs best.

Building your Notebook into a GTD System

GTD: Getting Things Done. This is a popular trend in Moleskine usage, and what are referred to as Moleskine Hacks [Hack: Method of making something perform a different/extra function or act more according to one's personal style. ]

The entirety of a GTD system is based around either tabs or an index. In these, the user can categorize notebook sections allowing space for different types of content. I prefer the visual feel of tabs, but equally there are many great tutorials on how to index your notebook.

Visit the Monster List of Moleskine tips, tricks and hacks

For the sake of this article, I'm going to discuss tabbed notebooking, you may click on the link above to learn more about other ways to organize your notebook.

Though some tab systems for the moleskine are elaborate, this will walk you through the easiest setup to prepare. First of all we'll need some supplies...

Moleskine / other notebook
Ink Pen
Rubber Band
Sticky note page markers
GTD Application

To better organize yourself, i've put together a GTD application, which can be used to organize the sections you wish to use in your moleskine. Version 1.0 is here. The application allows for a local save, which uses flash cookies.

Building your system

First and foremost

I suggest you number your pages. I numbered only the odd pages in my moleskine, to preserve space, whatever works best for you. Numbered pages allow you to make a note of important page numbers as you write, so the important stuff doesn't get lost.


Open the GTD Application. This application allows you to organize and plan the order and lengths of your notebook sections. The last column in the table tells you which page to start your new section at (so you don't have to count out your pages). Once you're happy with the layout you've prepared, check to be sure you didn't use too many pages (an amount is at the bottom, based on the number of pages inserted near the top of the screen), then start tabbing! Write section titles onto the ends of your tabs, and place them sticking out the side. To avoid them being torn out, try to have most of the body of your sticky marker inside the notebook. When applying your tabs, be sure to leave a half-inch gap near the middle of the notebook, we'll discuss that in a moment. Also, be sure to apply the sticky side of your tabs to the near side of the page (if the notebook is open, the tab should be sticking to the left-hand page), so that when they are pulled towards you they pull the weight of the pages, instead of just detaching.


Your pen. Every good writer needs a good pen - and if you're putting out money for a notebook, you wouldn't want a pen that dies halfway through writing your first sentence (if you're anything like me, it would result in the first page being scratched to oblivion in an attempt to draw out some ink). Invest in a quality pen. I use an ink roller pen, which bleeds a little bit through the pages, but in a non-distracting manner - use whatever you feel comfortable with. Only you have to live with your choice of pen.

To be sure you always have a pen with your notebook, put a rubber band around the body of the notebook, in the gap you left in step two. The rubber band should be perpendicular to the one that comes built into the moleskine (or if yours doesn't have one, the band should stretch from the spine to the opening.) Place your pen along the spine of the notebook, underneath the rubber band - and now you'll never need to fumble for a pen when you really need one

The Pocket

Now that you've got a good looking, organized notebook, you'll notice one extra feature of many notebooks - made popular by moleskine. The back cover of the notebook has an expandable pocket. This is a great place to store some of the important things you'll need with your notebook. Currently I keep the following in my notebook pocket:
  • Library Card
  • University Printing Card
  • 5$ bill (takes up less space than a gift card for a coffee shop, more versatile)
  • Portaitissa Icon
  • Small stack of sticky notes
Other ideas: cheat sheets, letters, business cards, bus passes, photographs, leaves, lucky pennies, flat rocks for skipping, bookmarks, fishing line, matches, twine, tylenol, hand wipes, camera memory cards, ad infinitum

Now start writing

Your notebook is just missing one thing now - content. Start learning your system and getting used to finding things. Develop shorthand methods for notes (the monster list provides several brilliant ideas for shorthand writing) and discover your style of organization with your new, cheap PDA.

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Comment by Stephen on September 18, 2011 at 6:19pm
The Moleskine Van Gogh / Hemingway stuff always annoyed me. To begin with it's a bit of a so what (I use the same printer paper as the President, hurrah?) and even after that it's pretty much a lie since the books you can buy today are made by a company that just bought the name of the company that made books for the famous people.
Comment by Ryan Albright on September 11, 2011 at 9:19pm  These Notebooks are Made in the USA and 100% recycled material.  An alternative to the Moleskine, which is made in China and less often in Italy.


Comment by Stephen Young on April 25, 2009 at 10:41am
No, I haven't! I really get excited about the whole DIY culture around moleskine though (searching up "Moleskine Hacks" on google is a great way to get started) - I like especially that Web 2.0 has helped people to rediscover the beauty of handwritten notes and notebooks, instead of tying us entirely into blogging / twitter / etc. It's such an important thing to be able to connect, but at the same time not to disconnect from our realities! I'll have a look for the pencil caddy, i'm always looking for ways to improve my moleskine :)
Comment by Dr. Dane C. Barca on April 25, 2009 at 7:20am
Have you seen the new moleskin accessory pencil caddy?
Comment by Dr. Dane C. Barca on April 24, 2009 at 5:47am
Absolutely. Fantastic post buddy. One of the advertisers on this site has a wallet that incorporates a moleskin. It is expensive, but looks very cool and useful.

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