The Most Important Work

At the end of last year, I had the pleasure of reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Leonardo da Vinci. One of the things I was most struck by is how much of the book was not about his artworks, but about his journals. In fact, most of what we know about Leonardo’s art we know because he kept detailed and copious records in his notebooks. Some could argue that, while his artwork is what solidified his place as one of the most important artists in the history of mankind, it was his journals that were his most important work.

I was then thinking about Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris, the wonderful collection of his thoughts and observations that he has diligently captured in a notebook for years. Most of his books, performances, radio work, and the rest come directly from these. I bet even David would make the argument that of all the work he’s done and will do, the diaries are the most important.

Last year, I also had the chance to see, on a few occasions, the incredible and fascinating exhibition Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters at The Minneapolis Institute of Art. The famous director is an obsessive collector of horror and fantasy memorabilia at his home and creative haven he’s dubbed Bleak House. The MIA worked with him to curate the one of a kind exhibition of his collection and artifacts from his feature films. All of it, items valued in the millions of dollars, were shipped to the MIA, except his notebooks. Those he insisted on delivering and retrieving in person. He could live with having any of the rest lost or damaged in shipment — but not the notebooks.

I wonder just how many artists and creatives this could be said of. It is a thread I pick up over and over again when reading about them. And, in the case of Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of my all time faves, I’ve actually come to regard his notebooks as a work of art themselves on par with any other he produced in his all too brief life.

This is all just something worth pondering. We may be right to consider that our notebooks and journals, where much of our work begins, may be more important and invaluable than the work itself.

Why I Don’t Use Digital Productivity Tools (or How a Notebook Makes Me More Productive)

A Guest Post by Curtis McHale

It seems that every day we are graced with a new digital productivity tool or an older one is talking about the next version with all the new features that will wow us. About two years ago I jumped off that band wagon in favour of a notebook and a pen for personal productivity.

The only digital tool I use is Trello and that is only used when I need to collaborate with web development clients. I have nothing in it of a personal nature.

Today I’m going to walk you through my modified Bullet Journal system and how I got there.

How I Ended up Analog in a Digital World

I think that so many people end up with digital tools or the newest application for … whatever because they embrace the any benefit mindset. This is the idea introduced by Cal Newport that says, if there is some benefit then we use the tools without any regard to the costs.

There is some benefit to digital tools. It’s easier to slip your phone in your pocket and then use it to capture tasks throughout your day. A notebook requires pen and that notebook. I don’t have this when I’m out for a run in the mountains so there are things I miss, and this is a good thing.

I’ve used digital tools before and always got them to a point where I would have 10,000 things on lists that I was never going to do. Things that in a moment 10 months ago seemed like a good idea, so I pushed the decision off on future me. Future me had no more time than in the past, so I’d just keep kicking the can down the road.

This is the first place where an analog tool is beneficial. The weight of moving a task is so much heavier with paper. You have to write it down in a new spot. You have to touch it instead of telling your task manager to bump the task forward by a month. By enforcing the constraint of analog, I stopped building lists that were 10,000 items long.

It was way to much work to move the task around. The fact that it feels like a huge amount of effort means that the tasks aren’t high enough value for me to take any action on.

Instead, I keep a two page spread of ideas for things I might work on in the next quarter. When the next quarter comes up I pick one or two to work on. The rest have the qualify again to move to the next list, and most of them never move again.

From there I break projects down into the weeks of the quarter. This is how I track my internal projects. I really don’t have to collaborate with anyone to write books or launch courses, so those projects can live in a spot where only I can see it.

The next step in my process starts at the end of every month as I migrate all my tasks from the Future Log to my monthly spread. To do this I break down the month into weeks. If a single weeks spans two months, it gets on both of them.


This is the key to each month. I revisit it each week as I’m planning the week to see if there are any tasks that need to get done in a given week. If I follow up with a prospect and need to do it again next week, their name will head back to the monthly spread first.

Like I said, the key to each week is the monthly spread. I start planning my week by looking at the things that I just can’t move. For me currently that’s 3pm Tuesday and Thursday and 12pm Wednesday when I either need to be at figure skating with a kid or watching my other kids so my wife can coach figure skating.

From there I’ll add any other appointments that are inside my standard work hours. That covers any family appointments or client meetings that need to be handled. This will also include any self care, like running because without proper self care you’re going to burn out.

Only now can I add in the blocks of time that I can work on client work or internal projects. I generally work on them in three hours blocks, during which my phone is in do not disturb mode so that no one can reach me.

From there I start logging things daily. Each day gets it’s own heading and I use a bullet for each task. I use my Bullet Journal as more than just a standard Bullet Journal though. In mine you’ll find tasks mixed with feelings for the day and logging how much sleep my Fitbit tells me I got.

The only other thing you’ll see in my notebook on purpose is a sticky note. I’ll use one after I’m done writing this to place a task for tomorrow where I should be editing this post and checking against any editorial suggestions that are available on The Cramped.

Tomorrow that task and emailing the piece will get put in with the regular tasks for the day and the sticky note will go in the garbage.

How I Deal with Trello on Paper

I did mention at the beginning that I use Trello to manage collaborative work with clients. But I don’t check in with it all the time. In fact, any task that I should be doing for any project makes it’s way to my journal including any task that is sitting in Trello waiting for me to deal with it.

They key here is my planning session before I’m done for the day. At the end of every day I’ll look at my time blocks for the next day and then at the tasks that need to get done inside those time blocks. I’ll make sure that I write down enough information from the tasks so that I can do it without looking at Trello.

By doing it this way I don’t assume that I have the information needed only to find the next day when I dive into Trello that the client really asked a question that I need to answer and I can’t move forward with the project. If that is the case, I catch it the night before and can deal with it so that most of the time the task is properly ready to be done the next day. If it’s not, I’ve already picked tasks that are ready so I do them instead of sitting and waiting for client feedback.

Things I Didn’t Mention

There are a few things I haven’t mentioned because they’re standard Bullet Journal technique. I use the standard Index format from Bullet Journal and the standard Future Log. I put around 6 months of “future” in my future log and then a final entry for anything that’s further away than 6 months. I go through a notebook in around 4 months so that almost always means that I have little planned out in the “far future” heading.

The biggest thing that a paper based system did for me was to help me say no to things right now. It helped me decide to not look at digital tools, because I won’t be using them. I save hours per month not reading about the latest task management application sweeping productivity circles.

The biggest hang up I had starting with a notebook was looking for ideas online on how to get started. Almost all of them were done by people that were way more artistic than I was. The only reason you’re going to see flowers in my notebook is because my kids got it and decided that pink flowers were perfect for the page. Same goes for all the fancy titles you see out there or the fancy monthly spreads.

My notebook is basic and functional. My only goal with it is to track my tasks and make sure I don’t overload myself. It’s not supposed to be an art piece and your notebook doesn’t need to be either.


Curtis is a husband and father of three. He writes about how to run a business well while still getting to be a good parent. His latest book is Analogue Productivity: Bring more value to work with a pen and paper.

Slice Planner

I’ve been using the Slice Planner off and on for a while but the past few weeks it’s become my daily driver. Every morning, I use it to time block my schedule, list tasks, take notes, and even journal a short paragraph or two. With the circus rigging taking up so much time and forcing all that’s left into much tighter spaces, having one two-page spread to see the day as a whole has been a godsend.

I don’t use any of the digital syncing stuff. Never have. I have no idea how well that works or not. But, as an interesting take on the paper based planner/notebook concept, it’s great.

Schools are removing analogue clocks from exam halls

The Telegraph:

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said youngsters have become accustomed to using digital devices.

Mr Trobe, a former headmaster, said that teachers want their students to feel as relaxed as possible during exams. Having a traditional clock in the room could be a cause of unnecessary stress, he added.

This makes me sad.

On a related note, we recently linked to a report about young people struggling to hold pencils due to too much tech. Yesterday, while checking out a web series someone sent me a link to, I noticed an actor holding a pencil like this:

This underhand grip is great for drawing and sketching in long, broad strokes, but it makes no sense for writing.

The importance of revisiting notebooks

The importance of revisiting notebooks — Austin Kleon

Almost every writer will tell you how important it is to keep a daily diary or notebook, but very few emphasize how important it is, if you want to publish, to have a system for going back through those personal notebooks and diaries and turning them into public writing.

Truth.

How to Save the Day, Repeatedly, with a Notepad – Michael A. LaPlante – Medium

How to Save the Day, Repeatedly, with a Notepad – Michael A. LaPlante – Medium

“On many of the jobs I’ve held, even if someone did not know my name or position, I was commonly referred to as “that guy with the notebook”. I was constantly taking notes. It is also a nice “prop” if you want to appear “busy”. A thoughtful look, a slight chin rub, and a few notes. Working hard.”

Lots of fun smart quips in this one.

(via Chris Bowler’s newsletter)

A new (to me) concept for keeping a notebook. – Shaunta Grimes – Medium

A new (to me) concept for keeping a notebook. – Shaunta Grimes – Medium

“I don’t number the pages. I don’t keep an index. I don’t do fancy handlettering. Sometimes I date the entry, but usually not. I just write what needs writing. Usually with a Papermate Flair or an Ink Joy gel pen.”

She discovers the beauty and utility of keeping a commonplace and is wonderfully excited about it. I enjoy her anti-fancy approach.

(via Chris Bowler’s newsletter)

The Pen Addict before The Pen Addict

Some of you may know that I had a long running and fairly popular podcast many years ago called enough. It was hosted by myself and Myke Hurley, who now runs the highly successful podcast network Relay.fm. Some of you also may know Brad Dowdy, who is not only the longtime show runner of The Pen Addict blog but also has a very successful podcast on the Relay.fm network of the same name that he hosts with Mr. Hurley.

Well, before the Pen Addict podcast got started, I had Brad on as a guest on my show. He and I got very pen and paper nerdy while Myke largely just listened in. But, if you listen close enough you may detect the beginnings of something special — Myke and Brad’s relationship forming and the spark of an interest in pens in Myke. Some might consider this The Pen Addict Podcast Beta — the show that led to the now very popular podcast and what is a years long friendship and partnership between Brad and Myke.

One of our readers and The Pen Addict Podcast listeners Samantha Kay was curious about this particular episode and reached out to Brad and I to see if we knew where she could find it. Neither of us could help. That’s where Robert Wall came to the rescue. Robert hosted an archive of enough for a while after it ended. He was able to track down that episode and shared it with Samantha who sent a copy to me.

Here it is below:

But wait! There’s more! You may hear the name Aaron Mahnke dropped a couple of times in the episode. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Aaron is the creator of the also beyond insanely popular podcast and Amazon TV Series and Book Series, Lore. Before that he was an extremely talented designer and made a line of paper products I still love and use today.

So, there you have it. There’s a whole ton of “before they were podcast stars” packed into this little podcast episode. Enjoy!

Why Paper Works – Mike Vardy – Medium

Why Paper Works – Mike Vardy – Medium

Paper works because it is only limited by what you’re willing to put on (and into) it. Paper provides an escape from your devices and does so without compromising your ability to get things done. Paper is safe and secure in that it can be both lifesaving and disposable depending on the circumstances. Paper is versatile, compatible and portable.Paper?—?simply put?—?just works.

Much agreement to be found with my friend Mr. Vardy here (via my other friend Chris Bowler)

The Analog-Digital Life | Leigh Reyes

The Analog-Digital Life | Leigh Reyes

There are days it feels like I’m living from screen to screen. I answer several messages on your phone, check Instagram, hop to my laptop to clean up a few slides. Before I know it I’ve spent half my waking life absorbed in variously-lit pixels.

Butch Dalisay showed a class of young advertising people a 500 year-old book and a first generation iPhone that still worked. They seemed a little more awed by the iPhone. Perhaps because they expect specialized hardware to become obsolete faster than the printed page.