The How, Not the What

Updated: Nov 6, 2019

The Idea - The many ways of notebooks - Notebooks are already organised - Limitation - The commonplace concept - The bulletjournal method - Specifc Notebooks

The Idea

Take a piece of paper, and use it well. Write a name, one that means something to you and you alone. Meaning is in the content, not the notebook it's in. That said, notebooks can provide a good place for these bits of meaning, keeping them safe throughout the years, and in a place where they don't become lost. A notebook can be a space set aside, where you feel creativity can thrive. The notebook can be fine and well made to reflect your own order of things - a valuable notebook for the things you value.

The notebook is not an idle object. It serves a humble and noble purpose. The quality of a notebook is diminished if it does not allow your meaning to come forth onto it's pages. Ideally, the notebook should even provoke the flow of meaning. It should do so shrewdly and elegantly, not demanding needless expenditure or consumption from the user. Notebooks are functional material objects, yet in this way they can embody meaning over materialism.

The conversation a notebook - or any object - has with the user is an important one. How we use something is important, a fact that we can see in how an object can fit into one person's life but not another's. There, it's the context that the object is in that changes it's value. There is also a feedback that objects have with how they are used. Their design implies and suggests a use. For instance, rough and tactile materials can imply personal and creative uses, in the right context. I became very interested in this idea when considering sustainability. Much of our thought about sustainable products is one-dimensional, placing emphasis on a single aspect such as recycled paper. The reality is that we are using paper everyday, and how we use that precious resource is important. The subtle influence of the object on it's own use cannot be overlooked.

So, the ways of using notebooks should be considered just as thoroughly as any other aspect of design or making. The way a book is used should influence how it's made. In turn, the design and make of a notebook will have a conversation with the user about it's own use.

Knowing these facts made it clear that I should consider how books are used more. I began by looking over my own past work and considering how books are functioning as a kind of information system and an organisational system. The analysis is truncated to things I have explored well myself, because it takes an inside view of some journalling method to understand it (I could not wholly understand a mathematicians research journal, because I am not a mathematician).

The following is some thoughts I have come up with from looking at notebooks. They include methods of using notebooks, and observations on how they simply are. If you want some ideas on using notebooks - such as the commonplace or bllet journal method, then you're in the right place. There might also be a part of you that is curious in how people organise information in notebooks, or why someone like me chose them as an object to craft. In either or any case: read on.

The Many Ways of Notebooks

Notebooks are already organised

Information generally becomes disorganised - that's entropy. An excellent combatant to disorganisation is comprehensive knowledge. This is the 'disorganised' desk that some people are able to work behind, but they knew where everything is amidst the mess, and so it is not disorganised at all. I like this idea, I believe that knowledge is contextual, but then again, I have a poor memory and wish to justify that. Remarkably then, I have been able to locate a stray note from years ago by spending a couple of minutes looking inside old notebooks. The notebooks were not even for organisational purposes, but were just things I had carried with me once upon a time (mostly for sketching, back then). The knowledge that allowed me to locate the note was that of familiarity. Consider how I would open up the book every time I used it, and flick through the pages, and then partake in the physical act of writing. This produced a familiarity with the content I was building up in the notebook, and consequently my memory has no trouble in navigating my past writings. I have corroborated this finding with other people who keep a regular notebook of some sort. There seems to be a kind of spatial memory that comes into play, showing the mind the general area where the information lies.

That familiar knowledge is not such a bad organisation system. This type of organic organisation is full of small harmonies which are rarely replicated by something like a computer file system, or even the more subtle applications on smartphones. Modern systems bring their own, but quite different, set of virtues. Notebooks are a place of organic growth, completed by the permission to be chaotic. It is your creation, your own chaos, except it is not chaos at all - it's the order of a natural environment.


This idea is definitely worth mentioning alongside the above point. The idea here is simply that limited things are a blessing in disguise. A notebook is a limited object. There is a front and a back, and content in between. So much simplicity is obtained from working on a project in one notebook, and there is a set of virtues flowing from that. The limitation provokes the familiar memory spoken of above. From an archivist's perceptive, well kept notebooks are a great gift. For the user in the present, the distinct nature of a notebook renders it an object of greater focus, which can set the stage for more enjoyable and lucid work.

The idea of specific notebooks springs from these observations, and that is discussed below. These three things (familiar memory, limitation, and specificity) are likely responsible for most of the sentimentality and idealism around notebooks. A consideration of these natural features of notebooks can lend insight, but it would be best to also consider how using notebooks can get messy (which it has definitely gotten for myself in the past). What about when one's activities are scattered or changing? Or when one's interests are difficult to pin down? General notebook systems can offer a solution to such puzzles.

The Commonplace Method A commonplace is a name for a general notebook that keeps bits of whatever. It's a place where you can comfortably put things with a theme, or things which are disparate. You can note things down for reference, or journal, or just doodle. It's a place where things lost and things found can go. It has been the notebook method of choice for centuries. Where people have written and read, there have been commonplace notebooks. If you keep a singular notebook, it is likely serving as a commonplace, or at least a commonplace for whatever you believe to be fitting in a notebook.

The commonplace seems to have become consolidated as a practice in the renaissance. Along with literacy, there came a need to keep track of information and thoughts. Students at universities where encouraged to copy bits of text into their common place book, keeping them handy for use in essays and debates. The commonplace book was a commons for everything that the student might be reading. The practice of a common place book was vital when books were difficult to access, before prolific publishing and the ease of the internet. I use notebooks in this classic sense because I frequently visit libraries to gain information, and refrain from buying too many books myself. However, I found the conecpt useful simply for a place to keeps develop all of the activities one is doing. It is where one scribbles out content from whatever project they are working on. The organisational principle behind the common room book is that it is a single place where things are gathered. But the common room is not always a mess. As discussed above, by using a commonroom book you go from dispersed randomness to focused chronology.

A common room has not always been necessary for me, but I found it when involved in a several different projects that require writing. My common room is very light so I can easily carry it to meetings or libraries. But if I don't need to write a lot, and only need to keep track of my day-to-day, a more integrated way of journalling would be ideal, such as the bullet journal.

The Bulletjournal

The bulletjournal (shorthand 'bujo') is a method of drawing up a kind of personalised diary as you progress through time. It was fleshed out and articulated by someone called Ryder Carroll, who released his bullet journal system and syntax in the form of a website, and then, in 2018, a book which combines the system with some general planning advice.

The bujo has become the most promient journaling method I know of, at least in the on-line community. It has become so prominent for good reason. Unlike pre-printed template journals, it's customisable; but it's also a firm system, with the appropriate boundaries and categories to be an effective organisational method. The bujo would be best described as a series of techniques that work well together. There's not a lot more to it, except for finding out which techniques work for you. I agree with Ryder that the best systems shine equally well when plain and functional. The beautifully sketched, elegant, and sometimes complex, spreads you can find online are entirely optional. Rather, a good grounding in a few techniques will act as a canvas for your own inspiration and customisation. At the very least, keeping it simple will help you keep up the habit, especially if it's not your usual sort of thing.

I would emphasise that bujo's are often several things at once. Rather than being a notebook in itself, the bujo can be thought of as a method that can be slotted into other notebooks, like a creative writing book or a journal. This may be useful if you ever find things like to do lists or off-topic notes strewn throughout a notebook meant for something else.

Here are a few things I noticed about the bullet journal technique:

  • The bujo narrows in from long time scales to short ones, and then grounds itself in the present. It begins with a future log, usually planning six months into the future; then a monthly log; then a daily log. Each log is created on the next blank page as the time is reached. Interestingly, the daily log is as much about being in the present and reflecting as it is about planning the day ahead. Depending on your style, the daily log can double as a journal entry location.

  • The bujo uses distinct, indexed collections. The collections create sub-spaces within the journal, each page-spread having a distinct title, such as a monthly log, daily log, journal, recipes, creative writing, or anything else. You can locate the pages of each collection by looking at an index written at the front of the book. Collections create neatly divided topics, and you can actually navigate within one topic in the bujo without even having to notice what is on the other pages (it is best to number your bullet journal pages in some way).

  • The bujo uses things called bullets, which are special kinds of dot-points for different categories. They exhort one to be organised, focused, minimal, and reflective. The bullets are used heavily in the monthly and daily logs. They denote things like tasks, appointments, events, or notes. Other bullets are added to tick things off, cancel them, or migrate undone things to the next day. They act as a streamlined way to filter and reflect on things, while using only the minimal amount of writing. Ryder points out that this is about capturing the key bits, unburdening yourself from lengthy prose. The beauty of the bullets, thought, is that they can be adapted to the actioning of tasks, rather than just the creation of another list.

  • I would speak of the bujo's tendency to operate in the present and be adaptive. Unlike template journals the bujo asks you to create a daily log as you go, and to create new spreads and collections as you progress through projects. It breaks up what you need to do into bite-sized bits that can be enacted in the present. The bujo grows and changes into what you need it to be, rather than imposing a system on you. This is useful for someone like myself, who is inconsistent and chaotic. My ideal system is not a system at all, but a straight up chronology of work, and I only break from that out of necessity. It's important that I have a system that can adapt to my varied patterns.

Specific Notebooks

The systems I spoke of above are for organising things together in one place. But what about specific matters that are already 'together'? What about things that need their own space? Specific purposes are not only practical - they carry an emotional significance.

A specific journal is arguably the most natural form of notebook. We want a notebook to serve on a beautiful, harmonious and complete journey, which happens when we can really focus on one thing, like a story, or a journal, or letters to loved ones, or the physical features of plants. There is beauty in targeted thought, focus, and immersion. Have you noticed how in books and movies, a journal often acts as a sentimental focal point? The phenomenon speaks to a related idea. It's an idea that we are well attuned to. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to find the idyllic beauty we crave in a world of pragmatic challenges and distractions.

Setting an intention for a book is good practice. Give it a few moments of thought, if the book has been an investment. Intention setting can also go wrong. I have seen so many journals only partly filled, because the purpose they served was too peculiar. I have been guilty of this: I kept a book for writing prose, but at the time, I wasn't writing much more than ideas. In the end I broke off that notebook and made a collection in my bujo for these ideas. I have seen far more specific intentions lead to under-used books. Keep things simple. Don't make your books super specific, unless that specific activity is really fitting into your life. Don't be afraid to use cheap notebooks, or simple paper to get yourself started on things. After all, the meaning is in the content, not the object.

Specific notebooks can crop up in response to specific challenges, and that is the other side of the coin. A specific notebook has always been indispensable as an information system for things like lecture notes. Once again, it can be good practice let the need show itself rather than creating it. The more 'successful' specific notebooks I have made are very specific indeed, answering to a specific task like a guest book for a wedding, or a travel journal on a long trip.

The businesses-minded among you may notice that I am not trying to sell more notebooks here - quite the opposite. It's my job to make and sell notebooks that can be used well, and in an intentional way that will ultimately be more sustainable; it's my job to make things that last so well that they change how you think about objects and materials; it's my job to make notebooks that allow meaning to flow onto their pages.

That's it for now

I hope to refine this post continuously over time and ultimately create a explorable flow-chart as I research these methods more. Most of these methods imply design features to me, which I greatly wish to discuss but that layer is for another day.

Pilgrim Notebooks

All Content © Christopher Jolly (Pilgrim Notebooks).


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