One notebook to rule them all

Maybe you’re like me and you keep a paper planner, a writing notebook, a nature journal, scraps of shopping lists, index cards with quotes on them, and so on. I’ve tried to go paperless using Google calendar and Evernote, but the truth of the matter is that I love paper, fancy pens, and all that. Material book culture pleases me.


You know what else pleases me? Meeting the carpool on time. Meeting my copy-editing deadlines. Removing apostrophes from plural nouns. Watching the ants circling peony buds. Enjoying a meal cooked by my teenage son. Doing all the things.

You may be able to relate to the long list of scattered tasks. Especially if you’re an entrepreneur. Chris Guillebeau writes articles that resonate, in particular this one from February: “How to Run a Business and Still Care for Your Family.”

Priorities are not just a question of time, in other words, they are also a question of focus and intention. I think it’s important for each of us to be able to say:

This is what I am living for.

This is what matters.

I will select these values and allow them to be my compass.

The way this is lived out may be different than how other people live, or it may even be totally unique.

So what are you living for? What matters? How do you translate these things into a life?


My friends, here’s an idea: Focus your scattered paper energy. Ditch the dozens of notebooks, planners, journals, scraps, and rubber-banded index cards.

Two words: Bullet Journal.

I started one in March and fell in love immediately. One notebook to rule them all. It’s indexed, so I can find my quotes, my reading list, my nature drawings, my lecture notes, my essay starts and story maps, and my daily schedule. I use a Leuchtturm1917 medium-sized book with dotted pages.


Granted, it’s not as neatly written now as when I started, but it’s highly functional, and functional is what I’m after.

naturejournalpageGo find a notebook and try a bullet journal. Like all systems, it’s tweakable. Make up collections as you go. Make it do what you need it to do. Make a mess.

Just don’t lose it!

What’s a commonplace book, you ask?

A commonplace book is a book that contains copied text from a variety of sources, categorized or indexed or otherwise organized to suit your needs. The term “commonplace” refers to the space in your brain that corresponds to these topics you’ve identified. These are the places in your mind that you like to visit.

Commonplace books are not a thing of the past! I’m bringing them back: go see what’s out there on my Pinterest board.

There are so many ways to keep one. Here’s an idea for commonplacing with sticky notes:

If you are at all like me, and you find yourself reading lots of books but not taking the time to do anything with them afterwards, then you might try this method. It’s simple: as you read, jot your notes onto sticky notes. It’s a particularly practical strategy if it is a book you can’t–or won’t–write in.










I do this all the time with books that I’m reading for school or book reviews, and when I’m done reading I have a bunch of notes that can be removed and arranged on a table or wall. (Beware sticking all of your precious notes on a wall, though, if there is any risk that someone will run by. Wind can be lethal to your note arrangement. I know this.)

Notes can be arranged by topic, and either added directly to a notebook page, or transcribed. There is so much flexibility with this system, and it is so simple to keep a pencil and notepad handy while you read.

I picked up a book on my desk I reviewed for a class a year or so ago, with the idea of taking a photo as an example for this commonplacing strategy, and I’m amused that the page I opened up to was the moss sperm page. The book, Gathering Moss: ANatural and Cultural History of Mosses, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, became a high-ranking member of my collection after reading. My note refers to the amazing skill she has in writing an entire chapter about moss sex, and succeeding in writing not only a clear depiction (complete with botanically-correct drawings) but a compelling narrative of evolution and pond life. The way she writes about mosses has intrigued me, and I’m currently working some of my new moss knowledge information into an essay.

If you ignore it long enough, it’ll go away

Not true, admittedly, in the case of my sprained ankle that never quite healed up right, or most other medical issues, so, I’ll leave you to decide on proper action in those cases.

Also, not true when it comes to a kid’s messy bedroom. Not only will the mess not clean itself up, but it will multiply. And start to smell bad, depending on whether food and wet clothing is involved.

Blogs. Blogs will not go away. I’ll go through periods of having other priorities, and yes, this blog gets ignored. But it is still here! Hurrah! (And to prevent that busy streak blankness, I’m writing ahead and scheduling. Look for posts on Thursdays.)


click on photo for source

On the other hand, I have discovered that the mess on my desk can be ignored for quite a while. My theory is that the active papers will rise to the surface, so the bottom layer that forms the cushion can safely be ignored. If I need it, I can dig for it, right? When my desk gets this bad (the photo is not my desk, mine is sparkly clean at the moment so it wouldn’t do for this post), and I finally get around to sorting out the papers, I find that I can chuck a pretty good percentage of that bottom layer straight into the recycling bin. Outdated papers from the schools, things I meant to research, notes about events that have passed, recipes that obviously didn’t excite me enough, poof!

Seems to me that it is a sign that I’m saving papers that could go straight in the bin, or get filed. Maybe I should be more picky about what lands on my desk. It’s prime real estate.

Do you have a strategy for keeping your desk tidy?