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Illustration for article titled One Notebook or Many Notebooks?

With our incredibly complex brains comes the need for most of us to organize that madhouse bank of thoughts into referable text. There are countless systems to keep track of everything: any number of different analogue notebooks and note-taking systems, analogue planners, digital calendars, to-do list systems, Evernote, Simplenote, Springpad, read-it-later services, etc.


The trouble is that there are so many different kinds of thoughts that we might want to keep track of, and many thoughts fall under multiple categories. So the issue is raised — do we keep track of everything in one source, or split things up into different notebooks dedicated to specific topics?

I am currently overloaded with too many tools keeping track of my life. Putting certain things together either does not work well or makes everything harder to find later. This is what I currently use:

  • a weekly planner to keep track of college homework and tasks
  • iCal to keep track of events
  • as my greater to-do list apart from school-related tasks
  • a Moleskine notebook specifically for note-taking in a couple of similar classes
  • another Moleskine to write down any thoughts that bog down my mind and I might want to remember later
  • Simplenote/Notational Velocity to keep track of a whole slew of things I regularly reference back to (also including many thoughts I just want to get out of my head by writing them down)
  • Evernote as a repository for long-term referable information storage
  • Recordium to record audio notes and musical ideas
  • Pocket as my read-it-later service
  • the occasional loose-leaf sheet for to-do lists, to eventually dispose of. The ideas is that if I have it in front of me until I finish everything on the list, I will actually get that stuff done.
  • Scanner Pro to archive all of my receipts, along with YNAB to track my spending

This is all getting to be a little bit too much for me to handle. I am aware that some of these tools can be connected, in particular to Evernote. I’ve given Evernote many tries, though, and it just doesn’t bode well with me as a quick-reference tool.


I would love to get some insight into other systems. How many different tools do you use and keep track of to manage your life?

EDIT, PART 2 — (August 2015)

It’s a year and a half later, but I want to thank all of you guys for your comments and insights and share my slightly evolved current system.


The biggest point I want to make is the answer I’ve come to for the original question this article asks: I am now using one Moleskine to rule them all. While that’s really against my nature, I find that the pros outweigh the cons. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this might not always be as organized as having multiple notebooks, but letting it go and allowing myself to pull out my one notebook at any time and write what I need to, without thinking about organizing it, has come to be very freeing. It changes the way I write my thoughts, which is more important than the nitty-gritty organization of it. And when I finish the notebook, guess what, I scan it all into a PDF and throw it into Evernote.

(I use a music Moleskine with half blank pages, half manuscript paper; but if music wasn’t my thing, I would use the dotted grid ones. Those seem to strike a perfect balance. I’m also trying to figure out whether I prefer pencil or pen, which changes how I write things.)


Here’s the other big change: I use Day One as a journal for when my mind gets too crowded with deeper thoughts. It seems that people generally prefer to use an analog notebook — a diary — for writing their deeper thoughts down, because it makes you slow down and really think about what you are writing. My mind works differently. Things get so overwhelming and crammed up there that I need to get it all out as quickly as possible, or I forget some thoughts I needed to get out. I find that being able to blaze through, typing it all out somewhat stream-of-consciousness style is what really puts me at ease and lets me get everything out. And you know what, I look back and read those posts, and their purpose of giving me another look into the deeper thoughts I don’t want to forget is served well.

My other analog and digital “notebooks” remain similar, but I’ve improved how I use them. If you’re interested, here’s a more in depth look:

  • Evernote is still my repository for long-term referable information storage. The big thing is it still doesn’t work as a journal for me. It’s more like a huge filing cabinet and custom magazine for everything I might want access to in the future. I am using it much more than I used to, but I still don’t think it is as useful for quick notes and lists as the next bullet:
  • nVALT, an offshoot of Notational Velocity, is still my go-to syncing app for quick lists & notes. It’s one tap or click away, I don’t have to navigate to any notebooks, and the layout is minimal and clean. (In retrospect, I do wish it was either Evernote or nVALT, but I always come back to using both. Evernote does a lot of things fine, but nVALT/Simplenote does one thing very well, and the quick nature of it is similar to the one-notebook idea of not having to think about anything but getting the note down, no organization required.)
  • Weekly analog planner to keep track of college work. (I find analog works better for this than digital. I’ve created my own customized version of the linked planner that I’m going to wire bind). When college is done, I think this will probably be done too.
  • iCal (now just called Calendar) keeps track of events.
  • Wunderlist as my greater to-do list apart from school. I have three lists here: Inbox (most pressing), Upcoming, and Someday. I keep my inbox to 5 tasks max, and as I clear it, I move the next most pressing tasks from Upcoming to the Inbox. (I find I don’t look at this to-do list enough, though. Still, it’s essential for me to keep track of my long term tasks I need to get done. I could put this in Evernote, but it just works better for me to have an app dedicated to ToDo’s. A bit part of this is the visual aspect of having it’s own icon, a better visual layout, and the quicker nature instead of having to navigate or search for my todo list in Evernote).
  • Voice Memos is the easiest and quickest audio recorder for me, and I use it all the time.
  • I still use Pocket as my read-it-later service, which I unfortunately only occasionally open.

This stuff is all very important to me because I’m plagued with somewhat severe OCD, medicated and all, and finding the most efficient, perfect, clean system for organizing everything is such a beautiful, appealing, magical notion.

But there is no perfect system. As nice as it sounds to put my todo list, audio recordings, college planner, nVALT notes, and Read it Later articles into Evernote to have a truly singular hub for everything, I would be losing too many valuable features of the apps that run those different functions, in favor of having everything in one app. And likewise, having everything separated how it is can suck sometimes and throw off the flow of just getting things down.


More important than all of this, though, has been changing myself internally more than the external system. Just live your life, and your systems will always evolve naturally, no matter how much you think about it. It’s great to stay organized and find a system that works for you, but it’s better to just forget about it and write down your brain however you need to in the moment.

Photo by Dvortygirl.

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