5 Reasons to Keep a Work Notebook

Earlier this week I posted on Twitter about filling up my most recent work notebook. 

Someone asked to learn more about this practice, so here you go! I've kept a work notebook for years. I stole the strategy from my friend and former colleague Rebecca, who attended all of our team meetings with a small notebook that proved invaluable for reminding us all what we'd decided on the week before, or how to solve a particularly weird bug that only came up once a year. My notebook started out primarily as a place to keep track of personal meeting notes, but over time it has grown to serve several other purposes.

1. Personal meeting notes

These notes aren't shared — I'm not taking minutes. Taking notes in meetings helps me identify questions I have and clarify priorities. Many meetings aren't super formal and so might not include a follow-up email of what was discussed or decided on; because I take my own notes, I can be pretty confident of action items and relevant decisions.

2. Retain new information

When I write things down I tend to remember them better. I take notes when reading docs on topics that are new to me, focusing on new terms or clarifying a process that was hard to make sense of.

3. Draw pictures

I'm a big fan of flowcharting for helping me understand model relationships (like an informal Entity Relationship Diagram) and complex processes. A good flowchart can pinpoint parts of lengthy functions that can be broken out into smaller, easier-to-understand pieces. But it's generally not worth my time to use a tool to create a formal flowchart. Most of the time, I can get what I need with a few minutes and a couple of pages in my notebook.

4. Make to-do lists

I like to spend a few minutes at the end of my day thinking about what I need to get done the next day. By writing a to-do list in the notebook I use for work, it will be the first thing I see the next morning.

5. Remember questions

I work remotely full-time and in a slightly different time zone than most of my colleagues. Sometimes they're all gone but I'm confused about something. My work journal helps me keep track of questions to ask the next morning, without needing to Slack people in their off-hours, send unnecessary email, or otherwise do something to remember what it was I was confused about.

Is this just bullet journaling?

Not really. I've tried bullet journaling in a more formal way in the past, and I know it works for some people. I also bought a Passion Planner at the beginning of this year in the hopes of taking my work notebook habit to new and more impressive heights. But I've discovered that the formality of a planner or a specific journal method doesn't suit me. I don't really keep track of my to-do lists from day to day; I might not even cross things off. I generally need my work notebook to help me keep track of things I've learned and things I need to do, and to organize my thoughts, so keeping things simple works better for me.

My work notebook also isn't a journal. I don't tend to write personal thoughts in my work notebook — I have a separate journal for that. (I do a lot of journaling about work, and I highly recommend developing a journaling habit, especially if you tend to be a little anxious.)


Use what works for you; these are the tools that have worked for me.

  • Moleskine Large Dotted Soft Cover Notebook — I like this notebook because of the soft cover, thin pages, and dots. The soft cover makes it easy to open, and it has an elastic strap to keep it closed. The thin pages still don't bleed with most pens. The dots, as opposed to lines or just blank pages, give me flexibility: I have dots to keep my writing lined up, but they are faint enough that I can still draw diagrams without getting distracted by lines. The notebook lays flat when open.
  • Sharpie Fine-Point Pens — Honestly, I could use a pen recommendation. I like felt-tip pens because they're easy to write with and they treat the paper better. I write sort of "hard," so ballpoint pens tend to dig into the paper and leave little depressions, but felt-tip pens don't do that. These Sharpie pens also don't bleed. But they don't last as long as I want them to, so if you have a felt-tip pen you like, let me know!

I don't really use rulers or anything else. If I need a straight edge, for example, I generally just grab a book or a piece of mail and use that. I also don't index, but I do dog-ear pages that I think I'll need to refer to. I keep my notebooks and still refer back to them for how to do things.