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Marian Diamond, Handwriting, and a Literal External Brain

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Recently, my brainy fellow & I attended a Science on Screen (1) event about some of the most interesting things in the universe (second in amazingness to the universe itself, of course): BRAINS!

After nearly all the seats in the theater were filled, Dr. Wendy Suzuki, professor of Neural Science and Psychology at NYU, started us off with a short lecture on exercise and the brain. She was so energetic & great at storytelling that I was feeling jealous of the lucky NYU students who get to take classes with such an engaging professor. Her enthusiasm was infectious, so much so that she had me wanting to join an aerobics class after she had everyone in the theater stand up & try something she called “intenSati,” which is basically doing goofy aerobics while yelling affirming things like “I am strong now!” and “I am inspired!” in rhythm with cranked dance beats. Dr. Suzuki teaches a course on exercise & the brain where each class starts off with intenSati aerobics. How cool is that?! For someone like me who gets a lot of nervous energy in classrooms, working out my physical jitters right before sitting down to listen to a lecture  would really help me relax & focus on learning. Dr. Suzuki went on to describe how exercise promotes neurogenesis in the hippocampus (new neurons), better memory, quicker recall, improved focus, stronger motivation, and increased creativity (2).

Dr. Suzuki was inspired to research & experiment with exercise by her former professor, Dr. Marian Diamond, who was the subject of the documentary film & main attraction of the night, My Love Affair With the Brain: The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond. Dr. Diamond was one of the first scientists to demonstrate the neuroplasticity (changeability) of the brain. Her early experiments were on rats raised in “enriched” environments (lots of space, many other rats, various opportunities for exercise, toys, mazes, etc) vs. those raised in small, solitary cages with no toys. The rats in enriched environments showed “brain enlargement as a result of brain use” (3). In addition to exercise, Dr. Diamond cited diet, challenges, newness, and love as the keys to brain health and growth.

Marian Diamond is well known for the anatomy courses she taught at UC Berkeley (one of which is available in its entirety on YouTube). In her lectures, she frequently wrote and drew on a blackboard, saying that this gave the students “a chance to think” compared to showing slides.

“And I write things on the board because it gives you a chance to think. If I just flash a slide up there you have no time to put it in what we call your association cortex. So by the time you write it out, you can remember it.” (29:23)

She wanted her students to take notes by hand, because they would be using their “kinesthetic sense” which would help them learn better than if they just read a handout. Explaining her use of the blackboard, she said, “It’s not old fashioned, it’s through years and years of studying education and how you learn–and you learn with kinesthetic sense when you write…” (5:50)

What really stood out about both Wendy and Marian is their passion for understanding the brain. They never take for granted how incredible it is, and their curiosity hasn’t been dulled by all they’ve learned so far. As Dr. Diamond put it, “I’ve spent more than sixty years studying the brain, and it was pure joy. Don’t you just love the brain?”

The documentary showed Dr. Diamond’s charming habit of kicking off a new class (or stupefying small children) by pulling a real, preserved human brain out of a flowery hatbox and giving everyone a look. Guess what Dr. Suzuki was carrying after the film, when she came back onstage to answer questions? A flowery hatbox. Which made sitting in the second row under a bright stage light very worth it, because Wendy has acquired her mentor’s charming habit of pulling a real human brain out of a hatbox and giving everyone a look. A real external brain. Yes! The absolute coolest! Whose brain was it? I have no idea! If we donate our bodies to science maybe someday we too can have our brains carried around in pretty hatboxes for everyone to “ew” and “ah” over. In the meantime, let’s get some exercise & write things down to keep these brains in good shape!

1: Science on Screen happens at arthouse theaters around the US, usually once a month, involving a film & an accompanying lecture by a scientist

2 Check out Wendy Suzuki‘s book, Healthy Brain, Happy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better (also on Scribd). I especially like the premise of this one: she’s almost forty years old, realizes she has no life outside of her work, no friends, and isn’t very happy….so she makes some big changes, starts kicking butt, and writes about it.

3 “Significance of Enrichment,” from Enriching Heredity, by Marian Daimond


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Organizing Concepts, or, Everything-All-Over-the-Place

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The way we conceptualize something can make a significant difference in how we experience & interact with it. Obvious, right? But maybe, for some things–like notebooking–we forget the possibility of changing our concepts. We’re very good at changing the tools we use, sure. But we can get stuck in a particular mindset that gives us a hard time no  matter what shiny new notebook or pen or program we try out.

A lot of us want to keep all of our notes in one place, whether that’s a paper or digital system. We see this as ideal–effective in its simplicity. We resolve once and for all to get our act together, use just this one notebook, and get all fired up about how wonderfully uncomplicated our notes (and lives?) will be from now on. When we find ourselves getting sloppy and using more than one tool again, we feel sinister chaos creeping in. We fear the forces of entropy that will scatter our systems, and worry that we’re going to lose our plans and ideas and maybe our minds because of it.

In this mindset, we look at our various note taking tools & places and think of it all as disorganized, fractured, and chaotic. There’s no overarching concept to tame it all. Understandably, this stresses us out.

Here’s another possibility: think of your notes–all of them–as a tree. This tree has four parts, starting from the top:

Leaves: today’s to do list/schedule/reminders (smallest part)

Branches: Current (but not today) project notes, to do lists, reminders (a bit bigger)

Trunk: paper notebook for everything & anything (pretty big)

Roots: digital storage of reference & idea notes, important documents, book notes, past school work, photos, etc (biggest & bottomless)

Using this tree concept, you can have different kinds of notes in different locations, but they’re all part of a single unifying structure in your mind, all in one “place”–your tree. Hang some notes on the branches, jot some on the leaves, stack up all sorts in the trunk, and weave others into the roots.

Here’s an example of how my notebooking system/tree is currently set up:

Leaves are in the form of folded pieces of paper that I use as bookmarks in my Hobonichi techo. I usually draw up a one-week calendar on the inside & keep to-dos, lists, and notes on the outside. One of these sits in my notebook, marking whatever page I’m at. I keep track of things that need to be done on certain days or sometime that week, homework assignments, orders to make for my Etsy shop, things to buy, etc. Timely stuff. At the end of the week (or when it starts to get too messy) I draw up a new one & transfer over any undone tasks.

My trunk is the small size (about 4 x 6 inches) Hobonichi techo. It has a day per page format, but I just use it as a catch-all notebook and ignore the dates. I carry it around with me & use it for ideas, brain dumps, reading notes, poems, calculations, drawings, whatever. It’s not pretty or neat, but more of a messy workhorse where anything goes. I keep the plastic cover-on-cover on there, which is handy for slipping scraps of paper underneath so they’re visible on the outside. I keep a branch tucked into the front cover, a scrap with a list of my current extracurricular/creative projects (the stuff that tends to get buried under everything else in life). Now & then I look at the list & come up with some things to do to move the projects forward, which I add to my weekly bookmark page. A typical pattern is that I do some thinking with pen in hand in the pages of the notebook, out of which I come up with a new project, which I put on the cover…and from the cover I come up with specific actions that I put on the weekly bookmark. From trunk to branch to leaf, see?

My root system is mostly on my Mac, split between Evernote and OneNote. I’d like to use just one, but for some things it’s really handy to be able to fold text under (collapsible outlines), which Evernote can’t do. For this reason, most of my reading notes are stored in OneNote, one file per book, with each chapter’s notes collapsible to keep things neat and compact. I also have a branch in OneNote, a single page where I keep a highly detailed project list in outline form, where each project (with many tasks underneath) is collapsible. I draw tasks from this to put on my weekly bookmark. The smaller project list on the front of my Hobonichi techo has only my main personal/creative projects on it, while this OneNote file has everything I’ve got going on, including business, school & errand-type stuff.

This system works for me in a sustainable way because of its variety. I have two digital storage systems, a paper notebook, and some loose scraps of paper. Now & then I’ll throw in an index card or a sticky note when I’m feeling frisky. I love all this stuff! Each tool has its strengths & weaknesses. Back when I tried to keep everything in one Filofax, I’d inevitably get frustrated with its limitations and try to move everything into a notebook. And then I’d get frustrated by the notebook’s limitations and try to move everything into Evernote. And round and round again. These days I just say let’s use it all! Use it all but simplify the concept. Organize all the parts in my head so they fit into the concept in a way that makes simple sense to me. And don’t worry that the notes are spread out in different places…do you need to have all the stuff in your house crammed into one room? No. You spread different sorts of things into different rooms where they do their particular jobs and nevertheless all those working parts make sense in your head as a “house.” Similarly, your notes can be sorted into different places and still make sense as one system…if it works for you, conceptualized as a “tree.” I think if you can utilize the complexity-within-simplicity house concept for all your belongings, your brain can also handle something like the complexity-within-simplicity tree concept for all your notes.

Bonus round! Here’s another example of how changing the way you conceptualize something can undo unnecessary knots in your thinking: I used to get stressed out a lot by thinking about all the stuff I had to do & all the stuff I wanted to do as if it was an enormous mountain blocking my path. The goal of life, or of each day, was to try and get to the top. Each day, I trudged up this mountain only to find it grew taller while I climbed and everyday, no matter how much I did, I was further away from the peak. This way of thinking is awful! It leaves you having a constant self-pity party, feeling like a Sisyphus that can’t even have the satisfaction of occasionally rolling his rock to the top for a moment.

By re-conceptualizing this situation as having a mountain to the side of my path, from which I pick a few little rocks or gems off of each day and bring back to my shop to work on–investigate, draw, build with, whatever–I don’t panic about having an enormous pile of possible stuff-to-do in my life. It’s kind of nice to think of having an ever-growing, complex mountain in your inner landscape to draw from, that will always provide you with interesting bits and things to do. In this mindset, it’s just the nature of being human to have one of these peaks that you’ll never fully conquer or explore. So don’t worry about trying to get there. Let the mountain exist (off to the side!) and grow and just try to enjoy doing what you can with it. This is another complex situation that can be viewed from either a crazy-making, chaotic perspective or a simpler, more constructive perspective. Changing the way you conceptualize it–without actually changing what it is–can make a huge difference, don’t you think?

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Intro to Budgeting with Paper & Tech / Getting Your Financial S*** Together 101

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Before I started using a planner, I basically just spent whatever money I earned as I earned it, and saved 0% of my income. This is called “living paycheck to paycheck,” and according to different sources, somewhere between half & three-fourths of Americans have this short-sighted relationship with their money.

What tends to snap you out of this cycle is realizing that you’ve worked X number of years (or decades!) and have no savings to show for it. You made all that money, and you spent all that money. Now you want to go on a trip or buy something important or some emergency expense comes up & you can’t afford it. But what if you had saved just 10-20$ every week since you started working? That’s around 500-1000$ per year. Multiply that by the years you’ve worked…and that’s what you *would* have in savings if you had taken better care of things along the way. How awesome would it be right now if you had that amount of money saved?

Getting your act together financially is easier than you may think. With a little effort, you can make huge progress!

Below, I’ll cover the basics: budgeting, finance tracking, and a bit of mentality shifting.

Part One: Budgeting

A colorful budget tracker made by Polka Dot Posie on Etsy (click photo for link)

A colorful budget tracker made by Polka Dot Posie on Etsy (click photo for link)

Budgeting is the #1 most important thing you can do if you want to stop being broke & cranky.

It might be helpful to look at our preconceptions for a minute. How do you react to terms like “budgeting” or “finance tracking”? Do they sound boring and lame and restrictive, like some form of life-draining torture invented by overly serious adults? Surely us cool kids don’t want to have anything to do with that stuff, right? We’re living free & easy here…keep away from us with those spreadsheets!

But here’s a common pattern: when we’re in our teens & early twenties, we’re just starting to earn our own money. I’ve got a job now! I can buy whatever I want! Maybe we go to college & take out some loans, or we discover credit cards & run up some debt. We do this for several years, without saving money. Then when we’re in our late twenties or maybe thirties, all of it catches up to us. Now I’m broke, have crazy debt, no extra money for anything, can’t save, can’t even go out to eat!

Free & easy has become broke & cranky.

It may sound weird, but in order to continue living free & easy–that is, having money to spend & not being overly stressed about your finances–at some point you’ll need to do some budgeting. Taking responsibility for tracking your finances is in the service of freedom…you do it because you want to travel, do stuff, pay for things that enrich yours & others’ lives. And you do it because you don’t want to become one of those stressed out, cranky adults who worry all the time about money.

If you’ve never made a budget before, it’s not too complicated…you just write down what you expect to spend in different categories each month. This expands your week-to-week/paycheck-to-paycheck mentality to a larger month-to-month view, and lets you get a higher level look at what’s really going on with your money.

A monthly budget looks something like this:

A simple example budget, based on a monthly income of 1600$.

A simple example budget, based on a monthly income of 1600$.

You’ll want to “spend” your entire monthly income within the budget, so (as in the example above), if you make 1600$ per month, you divide all 1600$ into your categories. Savings counts as an expense, so even though it looks like you’re making the entire 1600$ disappear, some of it is staying with you.

About some of the categories:

  • “Spending Money” is like a monthly allowance you give yourself, to spend on whatever you want (clothes, going out, books, music, etc).
  • “Monthly Fund” is for random expenses that inevitably come up, medical/vet bills, car troubles, fees for this or that. If you don’t use it all in one month, that’s great–but save it for later because you *will* eventually need it.
  • “Savings” is for money you’re not going to touch unless you really, really need to. You can think of it as an emergency fund, which is generally your first priority for savings (after you’ve built up a decent emergency fund, you can save for other things).
  • “Debt” is for repaying credit cards, student loans, personal loans, etc.

After you’ve written out your budget (congratulations, by the way, this is a huge step!), keep it somewhere you can look at it & use it often. It will be a guide for setting up your finance tracking.

Part Two: Finance Tracking

Writing down what you spend enables you to keep an eye on where your money is going. Are you sticking to your budget? If not, where exactly are you overspending, and what can you do about it?

You’ll need somewhere to lay out your budget categories, with space to record your expenses. If you’re using a paper planner or notebook, you can set aside a few pages each month with space for each of your budget categories.


In a small planner, you can use one page per category (with recurring bills together on one page). Other categories are on other pages.


A fresh budget set up in a large Moleskine, with everything on one spread.

Above, you can see how different categories take up more or less space. Typically, you can fit all your recurring monthly bills together on one page or in one small space, while categories like food & spending money, which have many entries per month, need more space.

Whenever you spend money, write it down in the appropriate category. If you buy 50$ worth of groceries, write 50$ in the “Food” section. If you go out to the movies, write 10$ (or whatever) under “Spending Money.” When you put some money away into savings or your monthly emergency fund, write that down too. As the month goes on, try to make sure you’re not spending more than you’ve budgeted in each category. If you can do that, you’ll live within your means AND save some money!

About saving money–if you’ve never done it before, you can work up to it gradually. Just start small…can you save twenty dollars a month, or just 1% of your income? Save twenty dollars (or 1%) for a month, then the next month, increase your budget for savings to forty dollars (or 2%), and so on. “Experts” recommend that you save 15% of your income. It’s something to aim for, but if you’re just starting to save, don’t feel bad if you can’t get there right away. I’m still not there yet either.

Lately I’ve given up tracking my finances on paper & moved to a budget tracking app. In my opinion, this is one area that’s best handled digitally. You can keep track of a whole ton of info in one view, with the ability to easily change any of the numbers without crossing things out & making a big discouraging mess. Finance tracking involves a lot of piling up of data on top of other data, adding numbers to stacks where most of the time you only need to see the tops of the stacks. Having one simple, neat interface that shows all your important numbers (behind which your complex day to day entries & calculations are tucked away) is great. And the easier your budget tracker is to deal with, the more motivated you’ll be to stick with it.

I tried a few different apps before settling on YNAB, which I love so much I spent money for it, even though I’m cheap & there are several other free budget trackers out there I could have used (Mint is a popular one). YNAB stands for “You Need a Budget” and looks something like this:

Main budget screen of YNAB

Main budget screen of YNAB

Above, I’ve set up an example based on the 1600$ budget used earlier. You can view three months at a time in the main area, where you record all your monthly spending, and along the left (in the blue area), you can keep track of whatever numbers you want…like how much debt or savings you have in different accounts; or if you’re self-employed, what expenses you have in different areas & estimated tax info; or if you want to save for a particular purchase, give it an entry & track your progress in saving up for it. Basically, with YNAB you can have a full overview of all the financial data relevant to your life, all in one neatly organized place.

The YNAB folks also have a great website with tons of helpful articles, tutorials, videos, and forums about budgeting & other financial smarts. The software costs 60.00 but if you use this referral link they’ll knock it down to 54.00 (you can start with a 34 day free trial to make sure you like it). You can also use the software for free as long as you’re a student. If you have a smartphone (Android or iOS only at the moment) you can also use the free YNAB app, which cloud syncs with your PC or Mac version. YNAB supports multiple budgets, so you & your significant other (or whoever else you mingle funds with) can each have your own budget, or you can have separate business & personal budgets for yourself. It’s rad. Try it! If you don’t like it come back here and yell at me.


YNAB also has lots of data visualization toys you can play with, if you like that sort of thing!

Part Three: Mind Training

Whether you track your finances in your planner, your phone, your computer, on a big whiteboard or a little piece of paper folded up in your wallet, it’s a practice that can have an enormous positive effect in your life. It’s even more effective if you combine this tracking with training. By “training,” I mean using some mental tricks to steer your mind where you want it to go–in this case, wasting less money and building some savings. Here are three that you can write down in your planner near your budget, tape to your wall, or stick in your wallet:


# 1: “Not now, maybe later.” This is from Possum Living by Dolly Freed. Whenever you’re about to buy something you want but might not immediately need, think to yourself, “not now, maybe later.” You’re not absolutely saying no to it, you’re just not buying it right this second…instead, you’re letting it percolate in your mind for a while before you spend money on it. You’re telling your brain: that’s a nice thing, maybe we’ll buy it someday…but just not right now. You’ll end up spending a lot less money on impulse buys and shallow wants, while not feeling like you’re depriving yourself.

# 2 : “Always remember not to give up what you want most for what you want now.” This is sort of the reverse of #1: maybe later (a vacation, nice place to live, classes, offspring), so, not now (going out to eat all the time, more books/music/dvds/video games than you have time to read/listen to/watch/play). Remind yourself of what you’re saving for, the big things that you’re working hard for & looking forward to. Weigh those against the little things you want today. It’s really sad that we can’t spend our money on the important things that really matter to us in the long run, because we’re so busy buying random crap we don’t really need but that we want right now.

# 3: “Do I really want to trade my life/soul for this?” When you get paid for your time & labor, you are exchanging part of your life for money. It’s easy to look at lifeless paper bills–or even more abstract, at digits on a screen–and forget what they really stand for. That money is a concentrated form of your life…part of your radiant soul that you can stuff in your wallet (remember when they opened the briefcase in Pulp Fiction?). Don’t waste that precious material! Think of your money as chunks of heavy gold that have been condensed from your life, and don’t part with them so easily.


I hope you can take away something from this ode to budgeting & make good use of it! Getting control of your finances is one of those wonderful things in life that take so little effort, yet give crazy big returns…it’s not like having to do thousands of reps of some tedious exercise before you see any progress. You can get started right now, tracking your spending for the rest of this month, getting into the habit…then next month can be your first fully budgeted & tracked month. Do your best…ganbatte!

“Ask yourself what you aim to be and what you should be doing. Are you living the life you ought to be living? If yes, then good luck to you. If not, then start taking control of your life.

It can be done. It should be done. Do it. You don’t have forever.”

//Dolly Freed

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Pens & Needles: Nomadic Pen Case and a Cross Stitch Tutorial

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My favorite pen case is the Nomadic PE-07. It’s roomy, has lots of pockets, sits upright on your desk while you rummage through it, is made of tough ripstop material & the inside is a nice bright orange.

nomadic pen case

Nomadic PE-O7 from www.jetpens.com

nomadic pen case

3 mesh pockets on the inside plus a full length zippered pocket in the middle

As great as this pen case is, I thought it could use a cross-stitched Bulbasaur patch to make it even better.

bulbasaur cross stitch

My pen case is super effective

If you ever want to do your own cross-stitching, it’s not too complicated. You just need a few tools & some patience.

cross stitch tools

Cross stitching tools

Ingredients for cross-stitching:

  • Aida cloth/cross stitch fabric. These come in different “counts” (stitches per inch)–the higher the number, the finer the weave (and the more patience needed). Typical size is 14 count; my Bulbasaur is on 28 count (super tiny stitches).
  • (optional) An embroidery hoop. This makes stitching on soft, high-count linen (like 28 count) easier and neater, but if you’re using a lower count Aida cloth (like 14 count), it’s stiff enough to work without a hoop.
  • Embroidery thread/floss. These little skeins come in hundreds of different colors; some stitch designs you’ll find are color coded to specific thread numbers. Before stitching, you’ll need to separate the 6 plies, usually only using 2 or 3 strands at a time.
  • Blunt-tipped tapestry needles. No stabbing of the fingers with these guys! They’re sized to match different cloth counts; a size 24 needle is recommended for 14 count cloth, while a size 28 needle works better for 28 count cloth (though exact needle size isn’t absolutely necessary).
  • Scissors. Little embroidery snips like mine are easy to store…but watch out for that pointy end.
  • A stitch pattern/map. If you want to stitch some pixel art like I did, you can find a lot of free designs online by searching “cross stitch [name of video game]”.

How to stitch? It’s very easy. You just make Xs (or crosses) over the intersections of the fabric weave. That’s all…no fancy stitches to learn, just lots and lots of simple little Xs.



Some people like to do a whole row of half the Xs, and then go back down the row to finish the other halves, which supposedly keeps the back neater. You can do one X at a time if you like, though, which is what I did. But since this was my first cross stitch, I made quite a pretty snaggle on the back.

I love a good pile of knots.

I do love a good pile of knots

Below is a comparison of different cloth counts. Most people use the white variety & I recommend starting with that (not the 28…unless you have the small-details crazies like I do).

Pink 28 count "Annabelle" fabric on the left, white 14 count Aida cloth on the right.

Pink 28 count “Annabelle” fabric on the left, white 14 count Aida cloth on the right (Zelda hearts by the multi-talented Kaylee Votano)

If you want to make a patch like I did, just leave enough room around the border of the design so you can sew the edges down. To prevent fraying, fold the edges under; if you like a little fray like I do, then don’t worry about the folding.

Cross stitching is very portable. You can keep a kit in a tea tin, or even just stash your tools in your pen case…

Cross stitch kit in a tea tin

Cross stitch kit in a Celestial Seasonings tea tin (Altoids tins are also good for this)

The Nomadic PE-07 can hold a lot!

The Nomadic PE-07 can hold a lot!

Pro-tip: These pen refill tubes (Uni ball signos) make excellent needle holders-just chop them a bit shorter to match your needle sizes.

Uni Style Fit multi-pen refill tubes as needle holders.

Uni Style Fit multi-pen refill tubes as needle holders.

And for you lovers of organization, if you cross stitch, you get to put together sexy thread boxes like this one…


Have I convinced you of the awesome joys of cross stitching yet? If you need more sprite-stitch inspiration, try pixelstitches.blogspot.com, and for a more in-depth tutorial, try pixelkin.org.

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6 Ways to Combine Chaos & Order in One Notebook

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There seems to be two sorts of information we put in our notebooks: that of a chaotic/timeless/free nature, and that of an orderly/timely/responsible nature. For some people, their notebooks are all chaos (drawing, collage, ramblings, ideas), and for others, it’s all order (lists, to dos, appointments)…but most of us probably have a mix of both.

The reason why I change my “system” fairly often is that it’s difficult to set one up that handles both chaos & order effectively. I’ll start using a big, bound notebook that’s great for sketching & writing, but doesn’t work for orderly stuff like daily tasks & lists. Maybe I’ve got a tiny binder that’s great for calendars & to dos…but it’s no good for drawing or writing essays in.

While having one notebook for everything is an ideal that many of us aim for, the problem with having your chaos & order together in the same place is that it can blend together into a confusing mess. A big reason why you’re writing stuff down in a notebook, after all, is so you can organize it and reduce the stress of having it all bouncing around in your head, right? There needs to be some kind of sorting process, a structure where one type of information goes here and another type goes there. If your notebook is your external brain, it doesn’t help you much if it’s in the same messy form as your internal brain. So, how do you sort it out & give each kind of information its own personal space?

Here are a few options:

1: Keep a separate, blank notebook inside your planner. It can be a good place for putting your random notes & sketches–you can go in there & make a mess without feeling like you’re trashing the nicely sorted ring-bound pages.

Pocket Field Notes book inside a pocket size Filofax. Use a rubber band to attach to back cover (grocery store produce elastics work great).

Pocket Field Notes book inside a pocket size Filofax. Use a rubber band to attach to back cover (grocery store produce elastics work great).


2: Use a travelers notebook-style cover, with different notebooks for different purposes. With this set-up you can have a separate planner/calendar, notebook, gratitude journal, sketchbook, finance tracker, etc, all under one cover.


Basic travelers notebook-style cover: a slab of tough material folded in half…


…with a few holes poked along the center.


Different notebooks are held in place by elastic bands threaded through the cover.

3: Tabbed sections are of course a popular tactic. If you’re OK with using ring-bound pages for everything, you can just divide out a tabbed section for chaos & stock it with plain pages or sketchbook paper.


Side tabs.

Side tabs.

Chaos section. Ludiculous!

Chaos section. Ludiculous!

4: Keep a daily task list on your notebook cover. This way you have a simple, small window on what you want to focus on that day, while everything else is closed up and out of sight. Helpful if you get overwhelmed when you open your notebook & have everything staring back on you all at once. Just pick a few things out of there, slap them on a list on the cover, and shut the beast.


Daily to do list attached to Hobonichi cover with magnetic page marker.

5: Use sticky notes inside the front cover of your notebook. You can use different color notes for different areas of your life, or use those tiny flag stickies with one task/idea per note.

Full-stick post it notes (cut in half) inside Hobonichi cover.

6: Mark off a separate area of each page for task lists. This works well with day per page notebooks with an open/unstructured design, like the Hobonichi Techo.

Chaos in main area, with to do list fenced off at the top of each page.

If none of these work for you, keep experimenting! Don’t be afraid to mash things together, cut things up, and create your own methods. All the variety of notebooks & tools that are out there came about from someone asking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if . . . ?”

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Make Annotated Maps of Your Hikes

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Pen & paper are especially good for drawing non-linear information, like mind-maps and trail-maps. Using them to make annotated maps of your hikes can deepen your experiences and build a rich record of your explorations that you can revisit in your notebook at any time.

Hobonichi mtn climbs

Above is a photo from the “usage examples” section of the Hobonichi Techo site, photo by Chiaki Usutani.

From the description: “This user fills her daily pages with the mountain-climbing paths she explores with her friends on her days off. The records include how she felt about the climb, information about the route for the day, the name of the mountain and peak, and things she learned from the hike, all separated by pen color. She always has the Hobonichi Techo on her, so she also likes to write about things she remembers while on the train to work or off at lunch.”

I like how she uses bubbles to enclose each of her notes, so she can fit a lot of information in a small space without it all blending together into a mess of text. Her example also shows how you don’t need to make your notes while you’re on the trail, but can do it later when you have the time. Not too much later though, or you’ll start to forget the details! I personally don’t like making my maps while on the hike; I find it’s best to fully focus on what’s around me, to impress it on my mind as much as possible, so the depth of the experience will make it easy to remember it later when I’m back home with my notebook.

hike guy stack

hike guy moleskineThese two (pocket Moleskine) examples are from Kolby Kirk, an inspiring trail-notebooker who blogs at www.thehikeguy.com.

Doing little drawings like this is great! They really help you slow down and see the details of what you’re passing by. This is a case where using your notebook on the trail isn’t a distraction, but a tool for intensive focus on your surroundings.

toshimitsu shiina sm

Above is a page from the 2015 Hobonichi Techo guide book, in a section of usage examples. Toshimitsu Shiina keeps some awesome hike notes, with photographs pasted in that are indexed to their location on the trail. On the right is an elevation map of the hike plotted over distance; circled letters along the path correspond to the lettered photos.

hike filo page

This is one of mine. First I write the date, location, how long the hike took & what the weather was like, then draw a map of the path taken. Anything interesting along the way gets noted with a word or two or a tiny sketch along the path, and beside the map are more detailed notes (in between are other random writings that aren’t connected to the hikes).

Nosy about the text? Nothing too exciting…on the left: “weed whacked trails, pixel house, quaint wooden signs, book of motion-activated photos of deer & coyotes near pixel house / Hidden place that reminds me of woods in Friday the 13th nintendo game – pixel house is one of cabins / New England Forestry Foundation? / Lots of broken & blown down trees / Jeff pushed down an old dead tree trunk / Coyote tracks? No sign of moose.” And on the right: “All the way to the bottom near the waterfalls & back. Walked past the end @ North trail to find a nice spot between 2 waterfalling rivers, took a nap on a nice reclining rock. / Lots of other cars, road closed sign so we all parked @ overflow area. Muddy road. / Carpenter bee (?) with full pollen baskets of light yellow pollen, crawling @ base of tree near nap spot.”

These hikes happened three and a half years ago, but when I re-read my notes, I remember being in my body when I had (most of) those experiences. If I hadn’t written them down, I probably wouldn’t remember any of it! It’s nice not to lose our silly little details…don’t you love remembering your own?


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Max Out Your Planner Page Size

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Does this bug anyone else…the way planner pages have all sorts of wasted space between the edges of the paper and the edges of the binder?

Arrgh! Makes me crazy!

Arrgh! Makes me crazy!

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 7.13.40 PM

OK, this is a Hobonichi, not a Filofax…but for illustrative purposes, that cover overhang gives me serious heebie-jeebies.

I use a pocket size Filofax. It’s a nice size on the outside–4.5 x 5.75 inches or so, but then you open it up and you’ve got wee little 3.25 x 4.75 inch pages inside. Why? Maybe it’s supposed to keep your pages from getting worn around the edges. But do people really care about this so much that they’re willing to sacrifice all that potential writing space? Regular bound notebooks seem to do just fine without such extreme levels of cover overhang. Why are planner pages so frightened about getting close to the edge of their covers?

However, you know what page size is a perfect fit in a pocket Filofax (a Metropol, anyway) & utilizes all that extra space so nicely? 3.5 x 5.5 inches. That beautifully proportioned pocket Moleskine size…

Moleskine with punched paper

Pocket page size comparison

Pocket size page comparison 2

Pocket size page comparison 3

Pocket size page comparison 4

You can even cut the pages out of pocket size Moleskines (or other 3.5 x 5.5 notebooks) and hole punch them for your pocket Filofax, like this comrade did:


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Notebook Happy Surgery Fun

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The “notebook kingdom” of Japan publishes all sorts of books & magazines on stationery, notebook strategies, planner tactics…there are even several books about the joys of four-color pens. There are books on notebook surgery and notebook combat written by notebook therapists. It’s a 手帳天国 (techou tengoku, notebook heaven).

In future posts I hope to get my hands on some of these fine publications & share them with you, but for now, please enjoy a little translation-poetry courtesy of amazon.jp & Google Translate.
happy note
How to make a happy note that alone time is more fun
shining note

Notebook making to find yourself more shining

“notebook that people can freely customize each, not only as a self-management tool, will be ‘important partner of life’, depending on usage.”

graffiti notes
Graffiti notebook surgery

“Graffiti change your life!

When incorporating graffiti in life, your ‘to observe the things power,’ ‘imagination to power’ ‘to express, tell forces’ will increase dramatically!

This book, The Power = graffiti force get to learn graffiti (powers of observation, imagination, expressive power) to explain, we introduce how to draw graffiti immediately incorporated into the notebook.

‘I do not draw a picture from becoming an adult,’ ‘there is no artistic taste in his’ graffiti-packed draw easily even in such a person.

Graffiti force to change the life Why do not you try to experience.”

notebook weapon

Let Shinobaseyo weapons that notebook to bag

“Note surgery, notebook surgery, book on notebook surgery is, I love.

If there is a place to learn in each of the idea, I am very happy.

The thing you want to export, the thinking in the brain, by visualization with a strong presence, in its real character, great consciousness works.

Date and pocketbook of time the written action plan will be the life of the scenario.”

stationery 200 percent

Work get on! The result is immediately out! Stationery 200% utilization surgery

“Stationery is not only ‘tool’ of the work, it is also the ‘weapon’.

By mastering its functions to the fullest, not only the work of efficiency and accuracy is improved much, stress will also be greatly reduced.”

notebook surgery

Really notebook surgery one minute head becomes better

“Edison was left behind 3700 book notes. Leonardo da Vinci, had wrote a research note over to 15,000 pages in 40 years. Now, you, you wake up in the notebook surgery, it is the turn to become a genius.”

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Filofax Pocket Patent Fluoro Pink

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So Filofax finally made a fluoro pink *pocket size* binder (well, aside from that pink Domino with the elastic closure and the weird indent across the cover…that one doesn’t count).filofax-patent-pocket-fluoro-pink-large_1It’s a patent material, so it’s very shiny and glossy and squicky. Not sure what it’s going to look & feel like after it’s been kicking around in the cookie crumbs at the bottom of my backpack, but it’s nice for now.

The inside pockets are the same patent material as the outside, which is good for stickers. I had hopes that the stretchy pen loop would fit a decent sized gel pen, but no luck. Oh well! If you use fat pens you’re probably used to stashing them inside the rings anyway.
patent open

The color is a bit more salmon/orangey than the Original fluoro pink. Like a hot pink with a bit of orange mixed in. Which is very difficult to get an accurate photo of…it’s more bright/fluorescent in person. Fluorescent planners are great for people who tend to lose things amidst piles of books & notebooks, or (especially with small planners) in the bottom of a cluttered bag. A black planner might get lost in the mix, but a blindingly bright pink cover won’t!
patent original comparison

Is it going to edge my raspberry Metropol into retirement? Maybe…
external brain

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