A simpler system

My latest entry-making accepts certain foibles:

  • I will probably never look at previous pages again, unless I really, really need to.
  • I will probably remember the visual context of past information than the content.
  • I almost never refer to old notes. If they are the same observation, I can’t be bothered to look farther than eight or ten pages (much less a second or third notebook).

I bullet-point each new entry, whether a sentence or a full-page project brainstorm, as “note x.” This separates random quotes, bugfixes, follow-ups, etc into discrete items. They are sufficiently atomic and granular.

Dates are placed only in the upper-right corner. The upper-left is for note ranges, like “notes 51-66.” Flipping pages left-to-right or right-to-left lets me see both sides!

I bookmark – with a felt-tip marker – any lists, but I will try to avoid making lists of lists, indices, etc. I want the notebook to capture my thoughts and to provide the bare minimum referencing (“see note 52, 73, 89”) without the obligation of page divisions or allocated page chunks. Lists take up a whole page, so consume wisely.

Paper drive

Finished out a notebook today. Moleskine used to have their page-spines bound with another layer of thicker, but lately it’s either peeling or absent. I ought to get those returned for proper ones, if only as evidence of looser quality control than a permanent process. I don’t want to switch!

Writing with a particular gel pen, I can only write two pages at a time. The ink is too wet and I feel I’m composing an ancient scroll. At least it’s mostly source code, so I guess it’s certainly worth keeping. I also have to write neater, because the wider bleed magnifies mistakes.

My next try is Baron Fig; I ordered one but forgot they don’t have the elastic strap. Maybe I can rig one with a rubber band and a couple heavy-duty staples.

Sectioning off for other things

If I need to write down steps for something that I am doing in parallel, like a nice recipe or miscellaneous notes, I write those entries in another section. Here are the steps:

  1. Divide the empty pages in half. The latter half will be for the new content, i.e. quotable inspiration, recipes, journal thoughts, etc.
  2. Mark the spot with a Sharpie (see previous post in Notebooks).
  3. Write down whatever distracted you from learning.

My hypothesis is I will make less entries for personal thoughts when I have introduced a physical constraint of less pages on which to make them. When my thoughts stray, I’m comforted at having a single place to put them. The book learning can continue uninterrupted.

Solo studying

My early secret to systematic progress with books is to assiduously write down

  • figures and tables
  • sample code
  • examples
  • paragraph(s)

Now, most of the words in the notebook aren’t mine. The idea of the notebook as a sacred grove for personal words hasn’t perished, but I can flip through pages of tiny-font scrawls faster than looking it up in a tome – and most programming books are that.

The success criteria is asking, “Have I started a new book or restarted from the first chapter?” That metric means I am doing very well.

Synergistic projects

GTD asks to list roles: brother, motorist, son. Often for convenience, these are set to automatic, because I don’t have enough time as it is even on the things I deliberately purpose. So one attempt is to integrate both a career role and a social role into a single project:

  • a collaborative web presence
  • technical tutorials
  • links to useful continuing education options

If you’re serious about a role, you harvest next actions from it. I haven’t been able to ignore it, because then I would not be able to get my brain “to empty.”


If I ever look back on my notebooks, I would like to read them out: longform, blank lines between paragraphs, local coherence among groups of them. That is the sane approach, because flipping back to scrawled examples and hastily-written insights is not worth much. Sentences are a higher form of abstraction: even when it doesn’t make sense, at least the variables have longer names.

This forces me to the bare minimum of organizing thoughts to arranged sequences of words, a welcome friction. I might make time to rebuild forgotten knowledge by tracing a sentence stack, but seemingly all is worn and weary by scattered fragments, done one day and then a week later (or never after).

Embarrassingly, I rarely look back on my written notes. As we are so far admonished to rewrite and revise, it is the hardest chore to copy even one page to the next. Are not valuable ideas worth that labor?

Learning hypothesis

Learning occurs from either of two routes: memorizing everything as I go, or beginning from a task and repeating a cycle of vacuum-discard-keep. I will be the first to say that among self-motivated individuals, I am the worst of them: a procrastinator, easily discouraged, prone to naps, and often distracted.

If I memorize it, I have to review it. If I figure out the task, it has to be repeatable. As a programmer, it sounds best to encode concepts into code: its execution is demonstration; its content is the concept. Where the algorithms are unknown or intractable, use a prompt and lean on human conclusions:

Is your input a declarative sentence [y/n]?

Problems and exercises are something else entirely. That is where a rubric comes in. The criteria can vary. I would only record representative problems, exceptional exercises, and demonstrative examples. These are my miniature case studies. These I would consult, in hopeful trust, a lighter reference than the text.

Layers of indirection

The Pentel RSVP Fine pen is wonderful. You can scratch at a page and get thin lines, clear ink against faint squares. I needed another notebook and there was only the gridded Moleskines. It’s a match made in heaven.

Usually, entries begin with a date and consist of unregulated streams of text, organized between blank lines. But there is a saying that everything can be solved with indirection. So this time, I wrote

     (clever subtext)

     (tag it)

Now each idea gets its own page, referenced by dated pages, and everything is suddenly neater. Using the old way, I had to context switch between entire boxes of text; now, it’s a mental Alt-Tab among single lines.

Expeditionary pages

In the grand tradition of self-reference, I realized one could write pages which summarized other pages. Your corpus was your work, and this new article would serve as a curation of selected content. These “expeditionary pages” allow your notebook a longer shelf relevance, because lookups cost less than a complete linear search. You also do not have to maintain X number of pages – as a guess – to maintain an index; you can keep writing as a journal, entry by entry.

I would like my next notebook to be gridded, because I have been drawing flowcharts and little printing squares for Fortran. The goto statement remains formidable, but initial design lends sanity to the testing. Modifying the program remains awkward, as each branching requires a grasping familiarity of what then happens. It would be nice to say my brain is approaching the sharpness of a well-run stack, but that would be lying.