Using Everyday Carry Notebooks for Productivity

by Stuart Lennon

After years of being bombarded with digital notifications and online reminders, I’ve found that using everyday carry notebooks for productivity has had a massively positive impact on the way I work. 

I started using pocket notebooks a year ago. I was seduced by the portability. I have become a conscientious objector to wearing a suit. I feel that ties belong in my past. Likewise, I am not surgically attached to my briefcase now.

Everything about my life has become more fluid. I can work in an office, at home, on a beach, in a café. I can work during the day, or at night. I might work fourteen hours one day and two the next. I have even been known to do lots of work with nothing but a pocket notebook and a pen. My pen will go weeks without a charge too.

I have an everyday carry notebook (EDC). Its use adapts.

Why I use notebooks for productivity

I am tech-savvy. I worked in financial services. I have owned more Macs, iPads, and iPhones than anyone should ever really need. My calendar automatically picks up appointments from my e-mail, sets reminders and lights-up on multiple devices. Even as I typed this paragraph, my calendar flashed up to tell my wife that traffic was light and she should head to work. 

There are so many electronic reminders, notifications and inputs, that my mind has learned to either disregard them or ignore them completely. Gradually, they are disappearing from my life. I am more productive without them.

There. I said it. The fewer digital tools I use, the more productive I am. 

“Put your mind to it and you can achieve it.”

The physical act of writing helps me to prioritise

 “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.”

That’s the tagline from Field Notes. And for me, it’s true.

I believe that the act of writing the task in the book has prioritised that specific thing in my brain. Almost automatically, the brain has ‘noted’ the importance and assigned some time to the task.

I know some people who complete something, then write it on a list so that they can tick it off. Such is the pleasure of finishing a list. I don’t do that – as for me it would interfere with my automatic prioritising, but I do understand why people do it.

I do not see my notebooks as pieces of art. I see them as tools. The ACT of writing something down is far more important for me than the fact that a record exists. I use different writing instruments in different books, with little regard for neatness or presentation.

I do keep them though. Sometimes, I can lose myself for half an hour flicking back through some previous week’s and month’s notes.

I wonder if anyone flicks back through Evernote?

This is how I use my everyday carry notebooks

It is very difficult to achieve much without focus and concentration. Many of our digital tools have become insistent distractions. Even now, when many consider it rude to check their phone while in conversation, we can still steal a glance at our smart watch as it silently notifies us via our nervous system. It can be a real challenge to find opportunities to put one’s mind to anything.

It can be done.

Each day, I sit with my everyday carry notebook and writing instrument of choice. No monitor, no phone, just me and the blank page. That blank page is my day. I sketch out how my day will look. I start with three “Must dos”. This morning I wrote;

  1. Fulfil Orders
  2. Write content
  3. Learn lines (I’m in a play in five weeks and I still don’t know my lines. Gulp.)

I do this early on. I want the first things on the page to be tasks that I want to achieve, rather than tasks that others want me to achieve. This simple habit has put me in charge of my days, rather than letting the notifications define my time.

Using an EDC pocket notebook allows me to keep the routine going wherever I am, whatever I’m doing. The notebook is always with me, always charged, always ready to go.

Once I have those three things written, I check social media, e-mail and the like. Broadly, I will follow a ‘Get Things Done’ productivity approach: Some messages will simply be deleted. Some will be acted on, and some will get noted in the notebook as ‘To dos’. I may even make a note.

Often, I am in and out of my notebooks all day. Sometimes though, I may not refer to them until the end of the day. Before shutting down, I review the ‘To do list’. Almost invariably, everything is done.

Using multiple notebooks

Often my EDC has only a few small entries on a day, because I have been working with ‘contextual’ notebooks. In my work bag, I have several notebooks on the go which each have a specific purpose or two.

For example, I have one book that is labelled ‘Supplier Chase-ups’ and ‘Customer Promises’. So, the front pages are notes of chases that I have scheduled, or notes on a chase-up that I have completed. From the back, there are notes on promises. I might have responded to a question on social media, promising to let a customer know when a certain brand was due to be delivered.

If I have this book to hand, great, I will use it. If I am out and about somewhere without the contextual books, then I simply use my EDC and make a note to be transferred.

Is that as efficient as an app that automatically puts things into lists and calendars? Well, probably not. But it does mean that when back in full-blown work mode, I work through my EDC to ensure that transfers are made, which automatically forces a review of the contextual books. I find this keeps me on top of everything more effectively than the electronic organisers.

So, I have four or five pocket notebooks on the go at any one time. Some of them, I tear through very quickly, while others last longer. The added bonus of this is that I get to keep using different brands, formats and styles of pocket notebook. 

Whatever we may be told, productivity is a personal thing. Apps, systems and even notebooks are all well and good, but they won’t manage my life. They are tools to help me manage my life.

Is one better than the other? Maybe. But the difference between them is tiny in comparison to the difference between a focused person and a busy person. 

Whatever system I use, the key is to take a little time every now and again to think about what I am doing and why. That’s what pen and paper (or even pencil and paper) gives me a little trigger to take a moment and think.