The Entrepreneur's Notebook (part 2)

Tips for more productive note-taking

Part 2 of 3

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So, you’ve decided you want to try keeping an Entrepreneur’s Notebook, or maybe you already do, but want some tips on making it more useful. Excellent. What follows are the techniques I’ve found to be most useful in my entrepreneurial notebooks. If you’ve got some tips of your own, please drop me a note or leave a comment.

One notebook for everything

While there are some good arguments to be made for per-project notebooks, I’m going to strongly recommend you avoid this approach until you find yourself with a project that is starting to overwhelm your main notebook and is likely to consume many more pages.

The problem with multiple notebooks is that two things will keep happening if you take this approach: 1) you won’t have the “correct” notebook with you when an idea strikes 2) you’ll end up with a lot of notebooks with almost nothing in them, which isn’t just wasteful, but leaves you feeling like you’ve let the ball drop on an idea.

Title every page with the project name

Entrepreneur’s Notebook Page Titles

Don’t worry about getting a good name for it at the start. Just write down something that describes it well enough for you to know what you were talking about like “Chihuahua Jackets”. I typically write my title over a thick black line that extends to the edge of the page and is always at the same place on the page so that as I’m flipping through pages I can easily find the ones pertaining to the idea I’m looking for.

When I eventually do figure out a domain name for the site (and have bought it) I’ll go back and write the new name above the old titles, so that the new name is on all the pertinent pages.

Only one project per page

Sometimes you’ll just have one wee idea to write down. Don’t be tempted to use that empty space on the bottom of the last page. If you do you’ll end up with a notebook where everything is mixed together on every page and hard to find.

Just flip to the next blank page, give it a title and start writing. Don’t worry about wasting paper, because you will have more thoughts on the topic later. When you do, use your Table of Contents (see below) or flip back until you find its page and add the new thoughts to it.

Doing this, you’ll wind up with one project’s notes interspersed with pages of notes from other projects. This isn’t a bad thing. When you’ve got an A5 sized notebook (or larger) you’ll have a decent amount of text (or drawings) on each page, and seeing the titles from your other projects as you’re looking for something will help keep those projects fresh in your mind.

I find that a typical pocket-sized Moleskine is detrimental to this kind of note-taking because you simply can’t fit much on a page. The extra portability just isn’t worth it in the end.

No spare pages

Sooner or later you’ll have an idea where you’ll be tempted to leave a few blank pages at the end of your note for the thoughts you plan on adding later. Don’t do this.

You will never guess the right number and you’ll end up with notebook filled with swaths of blank pages, which leaves you feeling that you’ve failed to flush out an idea, and that you’ve been wasteful to boot. Plus, good notebooks aren’t cheap.

Number each page

Entrepreneur’s Notebook Page Numbers

This will be important in the next step, but don’t bother numbering them all in advance. That’s just annoying. Number them as you go. Maybe pre-numbering a dozen or so pages ahead if you really feel like it.

Create an Table of Contents

It’s easier to do than you might think, especially if you’ve followed the two steps above. First, set aside the first 3-5 pages of your notebook, and write “Table of Contents” on the first one. This is the only exception to the “No Spare Pages” rule.

Since you’ve only got one project per page, each page has a page number, and you’re titling each page by project, it becomes much easier to reference where things live in your notebook.

When a new project / topic gets entered flip back to the table of contents and add a new line. I recommend skipping one line between projects, because it’s hard to predict which ones your brain will get all excited about in the long run, and the ones that do will end up with a lot of associated pages. Write down the name of the project and follow it with the page number of the page you just added about it. Just write in the new numbers as you add pages. For example:

Entrepreneurs Notebook: 11, 27, 29-32, 44

I find it easiest to add to, or update the table of context when I’m flipping through the book later. Trying to remember to write down the page number in the index when I’m having the both risks distracting yourself (“oh yeah, I forgot about that other project…”) and feels a bit too much like work. My table of contents frequently languishes until I am reviewing or need to find something specific, then I’ll go through and add the new entries that hadn’t been noted since the last time. Usually it’s just a handful.

If you’ve got a page that really important to the project, and you’re likely to need to reference repeatedly, then circle (or similarly highlight) the page number here.

Doodle in it

Entrepreneur’s Notebook Doodles

Seriously. Even if it’s just silly swirly things to alleviate the boredom of a meeting. The act of using your notebook for something as inconsequential as doodling lowers the barrier to writing in it. If you just use it for “serious” stuff then you’ll be more hesitant to open it up to note those half-formed ideas that are still just tickling the edges of your brain.

A new notebook can be somewhat daunting. I recommend that the first thing you do with a new notebook is to give it a title page, and doodle on it. Once you’ve done that it’s no longer perfect, and pristine. It’s no longer limited to pretty or good things. Now, you don’t have to worry about the quality of the stuff that comes next.

Emphasize the Important

Entrepreneur’s Notebook Highlights

Wrote something down that’s particularly important? Draw a box around it. Circle it. Underline it. Use big arrows. Use red ink. Do whatever it takes to emphasize the things that are important to you. It’ll make them stick out when flipping through, make them easier to find when searching, and just make your notebook more interesting looking.

Save non-business ideas too

While I wouldn’t recommend using your Entrepreneur’s Journal for diary style journaling, or throw-away things like grocery lists, you are going to have some interesting thoughts that aren’t necessarily related to business. Maybe you’ll encounter a great quote. Maybe you’ll watch a a great talk and think of some new goal to work towards. This will help reinforce the idea that this is where to go when you have a neat idea.

Accept the rough edges of life

Doodling, especially if you doodle in margins, has the side-effect of making it easier to accept the times when you’ll need to cross out a misspelled word, or scratch out an “incorrect” thought.

Accept that you will make mistakes and scratch things out. It’s ok. This isn’t a notebook of perfect things. It’s a notebook of thoughts, and ideas.

Making things readable.

fancy hand lettering
(CC INK photo by anroKath on Flickr)

Most people I know are convinced that their handwriting is crap. Some of them are correct in that belief. Improving it really isn’t that hard though. All it takes is a little practice, and a little mindfulness. Austin Kleon has improved his by finding examples of beautiful handwriting he admires and working to emulate it. My recommendation, if you want to improve yours, is to write the alphabet once a day, and be mindful as you write. If you create a particularly egregious piece of handwriting, scratch it out and redo it, or endeavor to make the words that follow it as readable as possible.

As a side-effect improving your handwriting will increase the chances that handwriting recognition software (OCR) will be able to understand it (see Part 3)

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