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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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