My tragic love affair with notebooks: An introduction to Ideaplay’s [The Work Must Flow]

This post originally appeared on Ideaplay, a quasi-official student blog for the program that I’m in. I won’t be cross-posting every installment of this “column” to this blog, but since I talk to a lot of people about productivity tips, tricks, hacks, and apps, I wanted to let readers know that I’ll be talking about those in another setting. If you’re interested in seeing what I have to say, feel free to subscribe to Ideaplay’s RSS feed for this and other updates, or check on Mondays!

My name is Spencer, and I am a notebook fiend. During a family trip to Paris a year and a half ago, my wife and in-laws were most excited about seeing things like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny… I had my sights set on Gibert Joseph. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see the classic Parisian tourist sites, it’s just that Gibert Joseph, a chain of massive book/music/video/stationery/media stores, had been a regular destination during the year that I lived in France, not to mention its role as one of the few bright spots of the stranded-in-Paris-just-days-before-my-own-wedding misadventure of 2010.

When I saw “massive,” I don’t mean that this was just a big store. I mean that the store was big enough that the different departments were in different buildings, and on this trip, I wanted to see them all. By the time we got to the stationery/office supplies building, though, we’d had a long day, the building was hot, and my in-laws just weren’t ready to handle Spencer’s notebook mania. Despite the fact that I was the family translator, they took their chances at a Starbucks and left me (and wisely so) to drool over the notebooks.

Each of the blue canopies is a different Gibert Joseph “department.” The one on the center-left is where I bought a nice file folder before coming to my senses and returning to my in-laws and their hot chocolate.
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The point of this anecdote isn’t so much to condemn me as a poor son-in-law as it is to condemn me as a total notebook nut. Moleskine, FranklinCovey, Rhodia, the Sorta, the Chronodex, I’ll buy all of them if I’m left to my own devices.

And then they’ll sit on a shelf and never be used.

The thing is, I know that notebooks can be fantastic productivity tools, and if I ever buy one, it’s because I’ve convinced myself that this time, I will use it to step up my time or task management. I’ve used notebooks with some success in the past, but I increasingly find that they just don’t do it for me.

Today, while reading up for this semester’s pro-seminar class, I stumbled on Raymond Nickerson’s reasoning for why this is the case:

The problem with the notebook system that many of us use is that one must remember to look at it, and to do so at short-enough intervals to ensure one does not see a reminder only after its usefulness is past.

Some people have the discipline to check their paper to-do lists and paper notebooks on a regular-enough basis to make them productive, but I simply don’t. Nickerson suggests that technology is the answer, and while that may not be true for everyone, it certainly is for me. In fact, this whole post has been a roundabout way of introducing [The Work Must Flow], a “column” that I’ll be writing over the course of this semester to not only make subtle references to Dune, but also to show you some of the computer, mobile, and web apps and services that I use to compensate for my unfortunate inability to use the many beautiful notebooks that are out there. Some of the apps respond to Nickerson’s wish by providing regular reminders. Others automate things in a way that a notebook never could. Most of them have the oh-so-useful ability to be in several places at once.

None of them have quite calmed my notebook lust (or my anguish that they so often live wasted lives on my bookshelf), but they’ve all been central to my productivity routines, and I hope that some of them will help you too!

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