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Write Your Ideas Down … No, Really

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If nothing else, I am an explorer and an experimenter. I fully embrace new techniques, ways of doing things, apps, and more—probably because I get bored easily and love exploring new options. When it comes to note taking, I started with a spiral notebook back in college, then years later gravitated to a computer. I’ve used various note apps that evolved early, then tried Evernote, but settled on Apple Notes (It’s free, simple and clean.). To-do apps were the same—I tried Wunderlist, Trello, Asana, and plenty of others before I settled on Things.

But lately, I’ve decided to migrate much of my work back to my original method—a physical, print notebook. Here’s why:

1. My to-do list app (Things) was so easy to use my list grew to be unmanageable. Yes—a great app allows you to prioritize, but I have so many ideas, and the to-do list grew so long, I started to ignore it. I’m still going to keep up that long computer list as a dumping ground (I get a lot of ideas), but when it comes to execution, with a print journal, I can more easily focus on what’s really important for that day.

2. More and more research indicates that the act of physical writing engages the brain more deeply and causes us to remember more than simply typing. In fact, it’s been suggested that physically writing things down improves immune cell activity and reduces antibody counts for people with viruses like Epstein-Barr and AIDS. Some scientists even think writing can improve memory and help you sleep.

3. While there are plenty of sketching apps for my iPad, there’s nothing like physically sketching ideas out on a piece of paper.

4. I’ve shifted from taking extensive meeting notes to writing down Action Steps, so a notebook is perfect for that. You can see why here. If I have extensive notes, I’ll stick them in Apple Notes.

5. This may sound old-school, but I’m uncomfortable opening my computer in client meetings – even if I’m taking notes on it. Sure, everyone does it these days, but the truth is, at the same time most of those people are also checking email, text messaging, and more. I’m old enough to feel that it’s disrespectful to the leader, and if you can’t go a few hours without checking your email, then you have bigger problems. Just try it—in your next meeting make notes using a pen and paper, and see if your attention, focus and creativity doesn’t increase.

6. Reading through my ideas in old notebooks is far more inspiring and insightful than scrolling through those same ideas in a computer document. If the whole point of keeping notes is for later review, then a notebook wins hands down.

So how do I use a print notebook? My notebook is a combination of new ideas, project notes and a to-do list (or Action Steps). I’m a writer and producer, so I use a combination of writing and sketching in my notebook, although I do far more writing. So here’s what I focus on:

1. An area for the overall project or topic of the day. It may be a meeting, a video or writing project, client calls or a strategy session. I note that at the top with the date and location.

2. An area for very brief notes or sketches. As I mentioned, I discovered that after years and years of note taking, I rarely actually went back to look at those mountains of notes (sound familiar?) so I switched to Action Steps. Here’s a post on that method.

3. An area for Action Steps. This can also be called a to-do list. This isn’t a long list, it’s three big things I need to accomplish today, or in other cases, what am I going to do as a result of this meeting, project, strategy session etc.?

That’s really all I need. So many notebooks today are filled with “daily affirmations,” pre-guided templates for productivity, or cute drawings. All that I really need are the three areas above. Do I ever change that layout? Almost every day. Always be open to new ideas and better methods, but I’ve discovered that basic template sets me up for the best result.

What notebook did I pick?

For ideas and meeting notes:

The Moleskine Pro Collection. It has the 3 areas outlined above, but they’re not even labeled, so it gives me the latitude to adjust when necessary. It also has an index and printed page numbers which is great for later reference. I tried a “Bullet Journal,” the “Passion Planner,” and others, but they were either too wide open (empty pages, dot grid, or lines) or very restrictive by adding too many categories.

I use the small one (5 X 8.25 inches) which is about the size of my iPad Mini, allowing me to toss it into a small day pack when I’m traveling.

For my daily schedule:

I’m currently trying out the Full Focus Planner designed by my friend Michael Hyatt. It’s the best notebook I’ve found for designing the most productive day possible. It forces you to write down your goals, and then helps you prioritize those goals, and accomplish them. I like it because it doesn’t treat me like a kid with too many categories to fill out. It treats me like a professional because it’s focused on productivity, not “daily affirmations,” “magical moments,” and other fluff.

I’ve only been working with it for a week, and after a month or so I’ll give you a more detailed report.

That process what works for me (at least for now). I’d encourage you to try it, because when it comes to creativity, the more simple, fun, and flexible it is makes a difference —plus, the ease of referring back to those great ideas you’re creating is important as well.

I’d love to know your thoughts on what works best for you.

Phil Cooke is an internationally known writer and speaker. Through his company Cooke Pictures in Burbank, California, he’s helped some of the largest nonprofit organizations and leaders in the world use media to tell their story. This article was originally published on Cooke’s blog at PhilCooke.com. For more from Phil, click here.

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