How I use a notebook to stay organised

When I recently switched back to the craziness of working on Hello Code, working for freelance clients (/looking for new freelance clients), and building and marketing my own products, my needs for staying organised changed a lot. I suddenly had a lot of different contexts of working, different people to deal with, and all kinds of deadlines to keep track of.

I spent a few weeks assessing different tools and systems, trying to find one that would suit me. In the end I settled for a combination of a software-based task manager (I'll write about that soon) and a notebook system.

I enjoy using pen and paper, and I'm often drawn to seeing how other people use paper to stay organised. I spent lots of time researching the Bullet Journal approach, and how different people had adjusted it to fit their own working styles. I tried it out very briefly, but it just didn't work for me. In particular, it took too much time to draw up all the different layouts I wanted to use. I wanted something that was less hassle to keep up with, so I wouldn't give up on it when I was short on time.

The Strikethru system

Eventually I stumbled upon the Strikethru system. It's similar to the Bullet Journal system in some ways, but I find it much simpler. Strikethru is designed to work with any notebook, with a few basic sections designed to help you stay organised:

  1. The Live list
  2. The Dump
  3. The Vault
  4. The Calendar

It's also designed as a tiered approach, so you can start out with just the Live list and the Dump, only adding steps 3 and 4 if your needs are more complicated.

Strikethru Vault

The basics of the system work like this:

  • Every day you create a new Live list with 9 items and the date at the top of the page. This is the only list you ever work from when getting things done.
  • When you have random ideas or need to take notes, you use the Dump section at the back of your notebook. Regular reviews help you pick up anything from the Dump that needs to become a to do item on your Live list.
  • The Vault is another section of your notebook for lists like projects, grocery or shopping lists, or goals. Items or whole lists from the Vault can be pulled into each day's Live list when you're ready to work on them.
  • The calendar is a simple, hand-drawn calendar near the front of your notebook to help you keep track of appointments or events.
  • Items on your Live list get a line drawn through them when they're completed (hence the name Strikethru).
  • Each item on a Live list or a Vault list is numbered. This means each item has an index number made of its page and item number (e.g. 205.4 is item #4 on page 205). When an item gets moved around, you don't have to rewrite it—you can simply use its index number and look it up when you're ready to complete it.

My adjustments

I've changed a few things in my Strikethru set-up since starting out with it. This is the beauty of a system like this (and Bullet Journal): you can adjust it as you go, to make it fit the way you work.

I've added some bullets to help me see at a glance the status of various to do items. When I cancel or move an item, I strike through it and add an X to the right-hand side of the line (for cancelled items) or an arrow (for moved items). To the left-hand side of each item's number I add an exclamation mark if I'm waiting on something before I can complete the item.

And finally, I add a simple asterisk to the left of the item's number for anything that's a priority task. The Strikethru system includes a method for prioritising your tasks, but I found it too complicated, and I often ended up doing lower priority tasks first, just because they were small, so a simple asterisk on a couple of tasks that are most important works better for me.

My notebook

I didn't like the idea of setting aside pages for the Dump in advance. I tried putting a flag about 20 pages from the back of my notebook so I could easily get to the Dump section, but I prefer the way the Bullet Jounal method lets you use the next available page for whatever you need. So I started using the next available page for random notes, rather than keeping them all in the Dump. This means my daily Live list pages aren't kept all together, but since I move or cancel anything not completed at the end of each day, it doesn't matter where those pages are once I'm done with them.

At this stage I'm still figuring out how best to use the Vault. Although I like the idea of having separate lists for goals, projects, etc., 9 items is rarely enough for those kind of lists. I also have a lot of smaller "someday" tasks in my software task manager in various lists, which kind of removes the need for the Vault.

The last change I've made so far is to add two items to the header of each page, alongside the date. First, I write down the habit I'm currently working on. Since I try to build a single habit at a time, writing it down fresh each day reminds me that it's important, and gives me a chance to cross it off when it's done. Right now I'm working on practising French every day, so I write "HABIT: French" across the top of the page, and strike through this line when I've done my French lesson.

Under my habit, I write my priority for the day. This is usually an area of focus or a particular project I want to work on. If I have a deadline coming up, that will often decide my priority for me. If I've planned to work on something that will take up most of the day, that becomes my priority. Other times it's whatever project or area I haven't been spending time on lately, that's been getting backed up. It might be an iOS app I'm working on, client work, or even resting if it's a day off.

Perhaps the most useful part of this approach for me is the daily review. Every night I grab my notebook, read through today's Live list and cross off anything I've done. Then I start my list for tomorrow by writing the date, migrating today's undone tasks, and filling the rest of the list from my memory and my task manager. Once the list is full (or close enough), I use the to do items to figure out what my priority will be.

This review process really helps me feel in control. I started looking for a better way to manage my workload when I found I was feeling out of control because there was too much to keep up with and I worried I would forget things. With my current system I'm constantly reviewing what didn't get done and why, re-assessing whether tasks are important and need to be done or can be cancelled, and making sure I focus on a single priority per day. Plus, the act of writing things down on paper seems to help with getting them into my head more than typing tasks into a computer.