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I am a big supporter of idea notebooks. I (kind of) consider myself an expert in them – or at the very least a success story. Because I’ve been keeping mine for years now (as I wrote about some a couple of years ago) and it works so well for me – I’m on notebook number 41 (a couple from high school, but really I’ve been numbering them since ’99 – good golly, does that mean I’ve been at this for ten years? I believe it does!). So I’ll share my personal tips.

I think of mine as “writing notebooks,” but they’re really a combination of ideas, lists, a daily journal, sketchbook, writing exercises, the occasional pasted-in ad or photo, copied quotes, and whatever else. I also keep “kid notes” in the first few pages of each one, funny things my kids say or do, milestones, things like that, very useful for scrapbook journaling which I then (when I finish the notebook and start a new one) transfer to a binder where I keep all of them together. And yes, this is all about physical notebooks, though I know a lot of people like to keep their version of the Idea Notebook on the computer or some other device – for me, actual paper is simple, inexpensive, with no learning curve, no problem with batteries or power outages or crashing – basically, no excuses. Also, it’s what I know.

Use just one notebook.

Buy or denote it specifically as an idea book but DON’T use a fancy hardbound beautiful book. Of my 41 books, only the one I’m on right now is hardbound – always before I have used spiral notebooks. It sounds silly, but it’s not – I love beautiful notebooks but I was ALWAYS too intimidated to actually write in them. I didn’t want to mess them up, or I felt like what I wrote in them had to be Good, or Brilliant!, it couldn’t just be average or (heaven forbid) bad, scribbled out, or a mistake.

One of my favorite sayings is: “Perfect is pretty, but finished is BEAUTIFUL.” That feeling of perfectionism was stopping me, so just using a regular, one subject spiral notebook made it so I could write anything, and it was okay. (Also spirals, even the awesome spirals with pretty covers at Target, are fairly inexpensive, so I can always get another easily – just that much less pressure, unlike the beautiful leather hardback books that cost $20 or more.) Even then, sometimes the first page of a notebook – all blank and scary – is a little intimidating, so I always pick a couple of inspirational quotes for the very first page, sometimes with a theme; that way I don’t have to write my own words on it.

If for whatever reason you really want to use a hardbound book, that’s fine, of course, but maybe try the quotes-on-the-first-page thing or something. I’ve even heard of people who scribble all over the first or second page of the book – then they can say to themselves, oh look, it’s already messed up, now I can write whatever I want. (If you don’t have this perfectionistic hangup of “Oh, I don’t want to mess it up!” well, then hooray for you! I will still be your friend. Probably.)

The other thing is that you don’t have to use regular lines – I like graph paper personally, or once you get practice, totally blank sheets can be freeing. I started with regular spirals – in fact, I got a box of plain ol’ spirals on sale for dirt cheap soon after I started. After a while I started decorating those with stickers. Now I usually get one with a pretty cover from Target. You can absolutely decorate them if you like – but I would recommend NOT doing this to start with, as it can so easily become one more thing you get hung up on and never get past. Start using your notebook first – then embellish if you want to.

Always keep it with you.

It’s not a lot of use to you if you can’t record something in it at any time. I buy my purses so that they fit my notebooks. You COULD do it the other way around though. 🙂 I generally prefer to write in full size spirals, 8.5×11, but of course you could use a smaller one.

If I were giving advice (oh wait, I am!) I would say try setting a timer and writing for five or ten minutes in it each day, just to get into the habit of knowing it’s there, and using it. You could write to-do lists, a draft of a letter to a person or company, rough draft journaling for a scrapbook page, draw a sketch of a magazine ad for later use on a layout, make a list of stories you still want to tell on scrapbook pages, brainstorm ideas for upcoming projects, or whatever applies to you.

Number your idea notebooks.

Like I said – I am on notebook number 41. I know this because I, well, number them. (Revolutionary, right? LOL.) I used to write the number (and the dates it covered, January to May of 2001 or whatever) on the inside cover – now I use a white sticker label and put it on the back top corner of the book, but whatever. But I do think that numbering them has helped me stick with it – it gives me a sense of progress, and helps me stay with just one notebook. The one notebook thing is important because otherwise I am tempted to start separate ones for different subjects and projects. And that way madness lies. Or at least, that way a pile of scattered, random notebooks and papers lies, and then I give it up.

A couple of ideas for fine-tuning:

As I just mentioned, I put a label on the back of each notebook as I finish it with the number and the dates. If I did hardcovers I would put this info on the spine, but I’ve already discussed that.

Mostly I enjoy just putting my lists and so on wherever I want in the book – but occasionally I’ll be keeping a list that I know I’ll refer to a lot and want to know where it is. My answer to that is either use post-its as markers on the page so I can find it, or I’m trying something new – use a punch or a small cup, make two circles, paste them back to back over one piece of paper, as a tab several pages in from the back of the notebook. Then I put some lists, or projects in progress notes back there, where I can find them more easily.

Anyway, those are my (extremely long and overly wordy) tips on idea notebooks. Mine are such an indispensible part of my life now, I hope this helps someone out there.

TDD rocks

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Here's my post on the topic.