Keep a notebook, on paper

11 Jun 2021

I’m a big fan of storing data in plain text so I carry a 3x5 notebook as a capture device for Getting Things Done (GTD). Writing notes by hand forces you to summarize your thoughts before writing and the summarizing leads to better understanding.1

You can observe a lot just by watching.

Yogi Berra

Writing down what you see and what you think daily can really change your life, almost like a pocket therapist: after awhile you start to see patterns in life, things to fix, things to be thankful for. Not really a journal but more like a naturalist’s field notebook and I’m studying humans instead of beetles. Writing your problems down forces you to state your assumptions, leading to clarity.

For a lack of attention a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day.

Evelyn Underhill

When we road-tripped from Florida to the Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion I kept a travelog along the way. Wrote a few lines every evening about what we saw and what we thought. The notebook took up little space and turned out pretty neat.

Wed 4/5 Dallas -> ABQ

Thunderstorms and cold front AM Dallas.

L noticed homes and businesses fly the TX flag not the US flag. NW TX beautiful: hills and rock formations, bluebonnets blooming along the road, passing through tiny old towns straight out of a 1950s movie, listening to the Cowboy Junkies @ 80MPH.

Sign at the rest stop:



Research shows that reflecting on what you learned that day makes you more productive2 and writing about negative experiences reduces intrusive thoughts3 (writing it down offloads your thoughts onto paper, stopping you from ruminating). So writing a few lines about what you saw that day and what you’re thinking about can be really helpful.

We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.

John Dewey, philosopher


Naturalists recommend this format for keeping a field notebook:

  1. Date and title at the top of the page.
  2. Leave spaces between notes: easier to see which ideas are grouped together and it leaves room for adding later info or arrows or drawings.
  3. One topic per page.
  4. Write neat.
  5. Write down observations, thoughts, questions. What do you see? What surprises you?

Rite In The Rain Top Spiral 3x5 notebook

My Every Day Carry (EDC) notebook is the Rite in the Rain top spiral notebook. It’s durable, waterproof, made in the USA, lays flat so you can hold it in one hand and write with the other, and the wire binding doesn’t poke you or rip your pocket. And it’s much cheaper than Field Notes, Moleskine, and other luxury brands.

What to write with

You can’t use water-based ink on waterproof paper, so gel pens and fountain pens won’t do. A Sharpie ultra fine point permanent marker writes OK but it’s kind of fickle: if you touch the page too much the oil from your skin makes the pen skip. A ballpoint pen works if the page is dry. A pencil works even in the rain: RITR sells a rugged 1.3 mm mechanical pencil but any will do.

Field Notes for people who work in the field

RITR notebooks were designed for loggers in the Pacific Northwest so they’re waterproof and durable. They’re so useful to anyone who has to go outside and collect data you can find them at hardware and sporting good stores.

But I have an iPhone

I have an iPhone and still carry a paper notebook for several reasons:

It’s hard to get your data back

Apple likes to create walled gardens that are visually appealing but you can’t get your data back—at least not easily: with Apple Notes I have to export each note separately as a PDF file and I have thousands of notes. For this reason I created Taigen, a digital web notebook that allows me to export all of my notes in plain text—the universal file format—with one click.

Can’t add items to Reminders or Calendar when in the car

I used to be able to whip out my iPhone while driving and add items to my todo list but not any more. Siri just says Sorry and ignores me even if I’m stopped. It’s easier to grab my notebook at a stop light and write it on paper.

Unreliable sync

Apple Notes lost several notes containing irreplacable data. Safari reading lists occasionally won’t sync between my iPhone and MacBook. Reliable sync is super important and it isn’t that complicated: I wrote the sync handler for Taigen and it works fine.

I don’t trust Apple—or anyone else—with my data

My notebook is very personal and I want it kept private so I don’t have to self-censor. Lawyers and doctors have a legally-binding code of ethics preventing them from disclosing what they know about me, but there’s no code of ethics among tech companies. Trust me isn’t legally-binding so I need either strong crypto and trust the crypto doesn’t have a back door, or strong physical access restrictions.

Carrying a paper notebook in my pocket next to my keys is about as secure as it gets.

So even though I have an iPhone I still carry a paper notebook: among other advantages it gives me a chance to practice my handwriting.

  1. Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 2014. 

  2. Di Stefano, Giada, Francesca Gino, Gary P. Pisano, and Bradley Staats. Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning. Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-093, March 2014. 

  3. Carpenter, S. A new reason for keeping a diary. Monitor on Psychology, September 1, 2001.