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

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.

The bulk of my root storage is in Evernote–quotes or “commonplace book” collections organized by subject, saved webpages & PDFs, morning page-style text files, lecture notes, process logs (where I track progress on projects), and anything else I find interesting, inspiring or useful to hang on to. It’s not too bloated right now because I got rid of my old Evernote account & started a fresh one last year. Something I find useful for keeping Evernote organized is to use index pages, where you can add links to other pages…so, for example, you can have one page that lists all the topics you’ve collected notes & quotes on, with links to each individual page. Many people like to use searchable tags for this kind of thing, but I like seeing an overview of everything in a linked outline.

I also have a pocket size Filofax where I still keep some old reference/record-keeping stuff that I started before using digital storage. I’m not too worried about moving it into Evernote because I already know what’s in the pages & where to find it, so it doesn’t cause any confused looking around trying to figure out whether something is in my Filofax or my computer.

Oh, and there’s an A5 Filofax where I keep houseplant & gardening notes. I like to watch things grow…and take notes about it.

This system works for me in a sustainable way because of its variety. I have two digital storage systems, a paper notebook, some loose scraps of paper, and a couple of Filofaxes. 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 say f*** it, 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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