My Notebook System

Created: 2020-07-09 Updated: 2022-07-28 (Added "cards" update, Juice pen update, 100th notebook update)

This year is going to see my journal/log’s 10th anniversary and 100th notebook. (Update: 10 years reached 2022-03-31, 100th notebook 2022-07-28.) After many attempts to write this up, I’m just going to disgorge it all. This article is long and rambling and I make no apology for it. Feel free to skip around to any part of it which you find interesting.

96 notebooks and going:

the full collection of 94 log books

I call these notebooks my "log books" and this is my "log system". Probably due to growing up with Picard reciting his captain’s log during Star Trek: The Next Generation.

(Note: the little red marks on the spines of some notebooks indicate the beginning of a year, which helps give a sense of the number of notebooks I fill per year.)

The capture system

There is always a Field Notes (fieldnotesbrand.com) notebook in my pants pocket with a blue .38mm Pilot Juice pen clipped into the notebook at the current page as a bookmark. Pulling this notebook out, clicking the pen, and writing a new entry is a completely automatic "rat brain" habit at this point.

Update 2022-05-10: It has been brought to my attention that the Pilot Juice pen has been discontinued! False alarm. It looks like the Juice is still available everywhere fine gel ink pens are sold. If I did need to replace it, my criteria is simple: everything exactly like the Juice. I have my eye on the Uni-ball One and Zebra Sarasa Dry.

I started this system in 2012 with the intention of tracking my time in a quantified self (wikipedia.org) method of some sort. I logged every single "state transition" from one activity to the next with a minute-accurate timestamp. I talk more about this later, but suffice it to say for now that something as small as eating a meal or getting ready for bed went into the log.

I finally dropped the timestamps (after agonizing internal debate) in log book #43 in 2016, a full five years after I began. Now my entries are free-form lists with the very occasional timestamp when I think my future self might be interested in knowing the exact time for some reason.

Ideas and todos are set off with a star, which helps them stand out when I’m visually scanning the page. Sometimes there are drawings.

vector drawing of my page layout as described below

The day format illustrated above has been virtually unchanged since I began:

  • A drawn horizontal line

  • The date in YYYY-MM-DD (ISO 8601) format

  • The day of the week (Mon, Tue, Wed, etc.) in a box

  • Significant day note to the right of the box ("Halloween!" or "Won the lottery!")

By allowing myself to start a day anywhere on a page, I have completely eliminated the anxiety of trying to get entries to fit in a specific amount of space. Some days have pages and pages of notes. Some take up half a page.

With the help of WolframAlpha (wolframalpha.com), I calculated that as of notebook #94, I had been writing in Field Notes for 3,469 days*. Since the notebooks are 48 pages long, that puts me at 4,512 pages. So it looks like I average 1.3 notebook pages per day. Which sounds about right.

all of my noteboooks so far with their neat little typed labels

For the vast majority of entries, my handwriting is a scribble. I’ve come to peace with this by thinking of it as my own personal stenography for quick capture. It’s really wild how much context and memory are involved in reading the entries. They get harder to read the longer I wait to transcribe them.

Other than the day format, anything goes. I believe this freedom is a vital reason the capture system has continued to work as my life has evolved over the last decade.

But I do have one other convention I follow: I often write longer-term lists in the back of the notebooks where I can easily flip to them for reference. As I add items there, I work forward. When the two meet, it’s time for a new notebook.

(Programmers will see the similarity between this and the common memory management technique of having stack and heap memory at opposite ends of the allocated space and having them grow towards each other.)

It’s notes, it’s a diary, it’s a log, it’s a journal, it’s a sketchbook. It’s compact. It’s flexible. It’s always there.

Capture system equipment over the years

Before switching to paper, I tried a number of methods involving phone apps and web applications. (The web applications were simple things I wrote myself). Only paper has been fast enough and flexible enough to work in every condition.

Pulling out a phone, unlocking it, opening application, and then typing on an on-screen keyboard is just not going to happen for the sort of quick notes I needed to make for my timestamped log entries. Recording audio on the phone is neat, but then you have to process it after the fact…​and speaking to your phone in many situations is just weird.

Also, interacting with my phone while I’m supposed to be engaging with other people (especially my own children) is very uncool. But nobody bats an eye when I take a written note. Or if they do, it often starts a conversation rather than ending it.

The paper notebook

As I noted above, I started this system with the cheap (under 1 USD) spiral-bound notebooks that can be found in every gas station or grocery store in North America. I pulled the pages out as I transcribed them, so the notebook got thinner and thinner as I used it. Unfortunately, the metal spiral remained bulky and would even snag on clothing.

The Field Notes notebooks have always been weirdly pleasurable objects for me. I’ve suffered from the "this is too nice to write in" problem with notebooks over the years, but I managed to get over that with Field Notes. Now I see them as a fun utility. I even managed to start using the subscription limited editions when I accidentally ran out of the regular kraft paper notebooks…​and I’ve been working off of a couple year’s worth of limited editions ever since!

a picture of my current log book and pen

The pen

I started with pencils. I used them for years. I tried several dozen different mechanical and woodcase pencils. I used them all to complete physical failure.

Woodcase pencils are: reliable, foolproof, ubiquitous, and a total pain to sharpen in the field. I carry a pocketknife, but you can’t always be whipping out a knife to whittle wood shavings at every venue.

Mechanical pencils are: always sharp, carry a ton of graphite, can be really nice, and will eventually fail in the punishing conditions of the pants pocket. The best mechanical pencils I ever carried were the Caran d’Ache 849 (carandache.com) models. These are very durable, attractive, and a great size for pocket carry. I eventually destroyed two of them.

Graphite doesn’t run when it gets wet, is erasable, and you can write upside down if you have to. But graphite does get lighter and lighter as the pages of a pocket notebook rub against each other. And erasing is way slower than just crossing out a mistake, which is what I do now that I’ve switched to pen.

Tried many pens before I settled on the Pilot Juice. The .38mm ball was a complete revelation for me. I’ve always considered myself to be a medium or even bold writer. But in a pocket notebook, the thinner line lets me fit tiny writing at the bottom of a page or in the margins when I need to amend an entry - or even sketch a surprisingly detailed drawing for a new project idea in a couple inches of space. It’s the first pen I’d ever used with a sub-.5mm ball that doesn’t feel scratchy or produce skipped lines or anything of that sort.

The Pilot Juice is an incredible pen for pocket notebook use for several reasons: it’s lightweight, it’s extremely reliable, the ink dries quickly and there’s lots of it, and the pen body has been very durable (though I’ve seen hairline cracks towards the ends of their lives). And the icing on the cake is the excellent spring-loaded clip! In the past, all pen clips have failed me - even the spring-steel ones eventually lose their shape. But this cheap plastic pen can grip the full 40+ pages plus cardstock cover of a notebook in my pocket and survive for months and months and months. I’ve been spoiled by the Juice’s clip and it’s now my gold standard.

In short, the Juice may not be the most elegant writing tool I’ve ever carried, but I no longer care. It performs like a masterpiece.

The digital log

The paper notebooks are handy to have on my person. But trying to find a particular entry, even just a week old, can be surprisingly hard. That’s why the plan has always been to have a digital copy for archiving, searching, tracking, introspection, and data mining.

When the stars align and everything is going like clockwork, I sit down at a computer each morning and transcribe the previous day’s entry into a new text file.

Since mid 2017, the log entries have gone into my text file wiki. I initially used VimWiki’s "diary" feature, but since creating my own simplified wiki plugin for Vim, the log entry index format is generated by a little Bash script. Either way, there is an index file (which is just a text file that the Vim plugin understands to have links to other text files) and it lists the entries, one per day.

At the top of my log index, this note reminds me how to generate more daily entries in Vim when a new month rolls around:

Add current month with: `r !monthlog`

Since it’s so small, here’s the entire Bash script:

#!/bin/bash

# Generates current month, or choose a previous month to generate:
#   monthlog 1   - last month
#   monthlog 2   - month before that..
#
prev_month=$1

if [[ -n "$prev_month" ]]
then
    myyearmonth=$(date -d "- $prev_month months" +"%Y-%m")
else
    myyearmonth=$(date +"%Y-%m")
fi
mydate="$myyearmonth-01" # first day of month

# pretty month heading for wiki
echo
echo "== $(date -d "$mydate" +"%Y %B") =="
echo
echo "$(date -d "$mydate" +"%Y-%m-month-wrapup")"

# start with day 31, loop back to 1 and generate date string
day=31
while [[ $day -gt -1 ]]
do
    date=$(date -d "$mydate + $day days" +"%F-%a")
    date_noweekday=$(date -d "$mydate + $day days" +"%F") # for wrapups of all kinds

    # 7-day wrapup
    day_of_month=$(date -d "$mydate + $day days" +"%-d")
    [[ $(($day_of_month % 7)) == 0 ]] && echo "${date_noweekday}-wrapup" | grep "$myyearmonth"

    echo "$date" | grep "$myyearmonth" # only show dates in this month
    day=$(( day - 1 )) # decrement
done

echo

Ideally, the ability to generate a previous month wouldn’t even exist. But I’m afraid things went awry with my system during the last move (new house, new city, new job). So badly, in fact, that I still have some big gaps that need filling in. :-(

Anyway, the output of monthlog (if you haven’t already run the above script in your mind) is this format:

== 2022 February ==

2022-02-month-wrapup
2022-02-28-wrapup
2022-02-28-Mon
2022-02-27-Sun
2022-02-26-Sat
2022-02-25-Fri
2022-02-24-Thu
2022-02-23-Wed
2022-02-22-Tue
2022-02-21-wrapup
2022-02-21-Mon
2022-02-20-Sun
2022-02-19-Sat
2022-02-18-Fri
2022-02-17-Thu
2022-02-16-Wed
2022-02-15-Tue
2022-02-14-wrapup
2022-02-14-Mon
2022-02-13-Sun
2022-02-12-Sat
2022-02-11-Fri
2022-02-10-Thu
2022-02-09-Wed
2022-02-08-Tue
2022-02-07-wrapup
2022-02-07-Mon
2022-02-06-Sun
2022-02-05-Sat
2022-02-04-Fri
2022-02-03-Thu
2022-02-02-Wed
2022-02-01-Tue

I append the new month to the top of the current list, so the whole index reads in reverse chronological order.

With my wiki plugin, positioning the cursor over an entry and hitting Enter navigates to that entry’s text file, creating it if it doesn’t already exist (same as VimWiki).

I’ll talk about the "wrapup" entries more below.

As for the content of a day’s transcription, they’re now pretty free-form, but I do have a few consistencies: long-term projects and things that happen regularly are "tagged" by prefixing them with foo: Did some stuff with Foo today.. Every time I finish a book, the entry starts with exactly the text finished reading TITLE. None of this was really planned. I’ve just fallen into these conventions.

When a log book is complete, it gets a neat little type-written (yes, with an actual physical typewriter) label and is archived with the others.

typewriter with labels for notebooks and candles

Go ahead and light those candles and pour yourself a beverage. You’ve earned it.

Quantified self origins

The freeform text entry for daily log transcription is what I’m doing now. But the whole habit started with a desire to account for my time in a "quantified self" fashion.

Becoming a parent was a shock to my project and free time-loving self. In fact, during the infant phase, it appeared to present nothing less than an existential threat to any sort of life outside of salaried work and changing diapers. Confronted with this monumental change, I desired, above all, some sort of control over my time. Or at least some way of accounting for it.

So one morning, I started writing log entries in a cheap little spiral-bound notebook. The entries were timestamped and tagged with single-letter categories and every single activity change was logged down to single-minute accuracy!

They looked like this (in fact, this is an anonymized version of one of the first entries):

2014-05-15 - Thursday - (weight 000.0) - Journal: Finished <a project>. Met with
<company for work> and discussed <work topic>. Tired today.
2315 s
2257 r <a book title>
2222 h grfb
2120 f watching <science fiction show> together
1845 p outdoors watching <child>, wrote tcl script to total log categories
1749 c went to <grocery store> and had quiet brain meltdown
1723 f dinner at <restaurant>
1705 c driving to gas station, gassing car
1651 h grtg
1601 w <work project>
1510 w <work meeting>
1441 l reading <website>
1435 e clearing inbox
1417 w <work project>
1011 w in-person work meeting at <place>
0925 w grtg mtg
0848 f breakfast
0805 f <child> awake, playing with <child>
0645 s
0630 h <explitive> cat pawing at window, lib
0350 s
0330 h <child> awake, had nightmare

A busy day could have twice as many entries.

The first key to reading this entry is to realize that the timestamps are all in HHMM format and the day starts at the bottom. The single letter after that is a category code. (The days were also appended to the top of the text file, so the whole thing read in reverse chronological order.

The category codes evolved over time (and I went back and forth between one and two-letter codes and different levels of granularity, but these are pretty representative). Some of the above are, off the top of my head, s=sleep, r=reading, f=family time, c=chore, w=work, and h=human where the "human" category covered everything from eating to brushing my teeth.

There are also some abbreviations for very common entries like "grtg" and "grfb" ("getting ready to go" and "getting ready for bed", respectively).

If you’ve actually been reading that entry, It’s worth noting that I worked from home during this time, which allowed for a lot of flexibility. Work often happened at strange hours and/or bled into the weekends. It was a brutal balance between childcare and getting the work done. (And there are few things more humbling than feeling like you’re simultaneously failing both of those things.)

Logwise, a day strictly started and stopped at 0000 local time and an activity could span across days (typically this would be infant care, but sometimes personal projects too, if I wasn’t too exhausted!). Most of my tools saw the entries as one continuous time stream, ignoring the day breaks entirely. But later ones also performed a rudimentary error detection to make sure I hadn’t put timestamps out of order or had a day break in a place that didn’t make sense (this caught a surprising number of errors in my log).

Basic entry extraction

The idea was to parse these times and categories, total them, and get a sense for where my time was being spent each day.

As chance would have it, the above entry actually captures the creation of the first tool I wrote to extract the info: a TCL script that simply gave grand totals for any given category. Getting spans of time from the timestamps is pretty easy. Turn everything to minutes by multiplying the first two digits by 60 and adding the second two digits: 0630 becomes "390 minutes since midnight". Do the same for another number and subtract to find the difference: 0630 to 0715 is 435 - 390 = 45, so an activity that started at the first timestamp and ended at the second (some other activity is starting) lasted 45 minutes (which you can easily verify at a glance).

This is one of many, many advantages of 24-hour times as opposed to the abomination of AM/PM. And don’t even get me started on date formats (xkcd.com)

Timezones also presented a challenge. Imagine you’re going on vacation for a week. Do you write your entries in "home time" and translate every entry, or do you start writing entries in local time and translate later…​or neither and try to fudge the data later? Yeah, it sounds silly, but imagine you’ve been scrupulously keeping track of every minute for a couple years. This sort of thing bothers you. For a brief time, I even experimented with calculating times in a canonical UTC form and setting timezone changes for a block of entries with an encoding (TIMEZONE: +7).

I wrote several generations of report tools (most of which exported to HTML for pretty graphs and word clouds by frequency of use). These were always fun to look at. I discuss more about "tooling" later.

For the first three years, all entries went at the top of a single text file. The original log.txt file spans from May 2014 to October 2017 and has 46,000 lines.

An instant logging habit

As I mentioned in the beginning, the nature of attempting such a hardcore logging method was that once I started, it required constant vigilance. If I missed even a single entry, it could make it hard to piece together the rest of the sequence of the day.

The consequence of this was that I quickly built up a habit of pulling out the notebook and making entries all the time. After a lifetime of wanting to "get better" about journaling or note-taking, I was suddenly doing it dozens of times a day.

The result was two-fold:

  1. I acquired the habit of note-taking in general. Todo lists, ideas, quotes, fragments of stories, subjects to research later. All of those went into the notebook in one continuous stream.

  2. Establishing this one habit acted as a gateway for developing other habits.

A paper notebook is a wonderfully handy thing to have around, but it only works if you fill it with stuff. Don’t be afraid to throw anything and everything in one. You can always separate the wheat from the chaff later. And notebooks are (usually) cheap.

Reducing the load: switching to free-form log entries

In October 2017, I started using VimWiki’s diary feature, which uses one text file per day. But I continued to keep the timestamped, categorized log for two more years.

Then one day, five years into it, I’d finally had enough and decided to allow myself to simplify the log: no more timestamps, no more daily minutia (brushing teeth, eating meals, etc.).

And, most importantly, no more painstaking transcription process to ensure every timestamp was correct. You might or might not be surprised how many mistakes I would make any given day between the paper log and the transcription process. Sometimes timestamps wouldn’t make sense (out of chronological order) or a simple mistype a number. My scripts would catch these mistakes, but then I would have to attempt to figure out the correct times. Tedious stuff.

I debated this decision for months. After logging for so long, the practice had momentum. I mean, we’re talking about an unbroken chain of timestamped entries spanning nearly 2,000 days. Once I stopped logging the timestamps, that chain would be forever broken. If I decided to start again, I would be "starting over" to some degree.

I consulted my wife about my agonizing descision and I think you can imagine her wise answer.

The truth was that I just couldn’t justify the timestamped log entries anymore because I wasn’t really doing anything with them. I wasn’t acting on anything I’d learned from them. At least not consciously.

Parenthood, not the log, is what sharpened my ability to choose projects and see them to completion: the irony was that having way less free time meant I used what I had much more effectively.

By contrast, I had absolutely no evidence that the timestamped logging had produced similar results. Logging and note-taking in general were great. But the most laborious part was starting to feel like an impressive but ultimately pointless exercise.

So one morning I looked at my watch, but did not write down the time. Instead, I just wrote about what I was doing. By the end of the day, I’d written a half page of bulleted entries. It felt great. I had made the right choice.

I have not regretted the decision one bit since.

Except maybe my fantasies about someday being asked, "Where were you at seven o’clock on Saturday the Ninth of November?"

the logs all labeled and stowed in a box

Tooling

As a software developer, programs are my hammer and everything I see is a nail. Naturally, I’ve written a lot of programs over the years to help make sense of the notes.

When I was doing the timestamped entries, I had command line tools to help create entries. I also had a hybrid system I would use if I were sitting at the computer where I would scribble an entry and also hit a button to append a timestamp with the same description to give myself a leg up on the next day’s transcription! It worked better than you might think.

Reporting and searching

My first scripts simply summarized the time categories in various ways. I’ve had terminal output with neat columns of data and pretty HTML reports.

For a while, I was also keeping a directory alongside the log with one small image for every day. The images might be photos or screenshots, but mostly they were little drawings. A script collated those with the daily log entries and create a sort of digital scrapbook where each day was a tiny thumbnail image which could expand into the full entry (and full-sized image). That was pretty neat.

I’ve written a couple search tools. I was even looking into a dedicated full-text fuzzy search system based on Apache Solr, but decided that was not the sort of tool I was willing to support in the long run.

These days, I just have a Bash alias that searches the log (and my wiki) with ag, The Silver Searcher (github.com).

But the truth is, it’s often surprisingly hard to search the log. Sometimes I’m just certain that I’ve written about something. And I search and search and nothing comes up. Finally, I narrow it down to a date range and brute-force read the entries until I find it. And darn it, there it is, and I somehow didn’t use any of the keywords I had tried. It happens all the time and I have no idea how to solve it without some sort of agent with natural language intelligence.

To tackle the findability problem from another angle, I’ve tried numerous tagging systems to help categorize and search, but I’ve yet to stick with anything systematized and thorough enough that it could be used for ad hoc reporting or automation.

"To-Do"s and future event tracking

Another thing I’ve tried to do with the log system is track goals both big and small.

One of my favorite systems scanned for items that started with "TODO <keyword>" and email me the list of all items. An item would be automatically struck from the list when I entered another entry with "DONE <keyword>". That worked really well until something changed in my setup and the emails stopped being sent from my local machine to my mail host.

I’ve also tried, unsuccessfully, to enter a goal and track its progress (percentage of completion or simply time spent) in later entries. So far, my attempts have all been too "heavy" and they all fell under their own weight and often just served to discourage me when it turned out I wasn’t spending my free time the way I’d originally thought I "should".

Of course, there’s a larger issue of finding the right balance between spending your free time relaxing, or following whatever new passion strikes your fancy, or pursuing more lofty lifetime goals. But that’s surely outside the scope of even this sprawling page.

So what I currently do is write immediate TODOs as I discover them. Then I copy over the outstanding ones into the next day’s page. I do this until they’re done. Or I give up on them. This is very much like the Bullet Journal system, as I understand it.

For the longer-term goals, I write them on the last page of my notebook. When I start a new notebook, I copy the outstanding goals to the next one.

These two levels of reminder work pretty well.

As for tracking things I’ve done, see the discussion about "wrap-ups" later.

I’d love to find a way to add future calendar events in my paper notebook. But nothing has stuck yet. The closest I ever got was having a trimmed index card with all future events written on it, which I would move from day to day. Since I was forced to interact with it on a frequent basis, it reminded me to look at it. But since it was just one card, I had to write events as I got them, not the order they’d take place. So it became increasingly hard to scan for events at a glance.

Storing dates on paper either means having space allocated for every day in advance (and hoping it’s enough space!) or writing deadline/appointment entries as they come, which means they’re not going to be in order and that pretty much guarantees you’re not going to see the right one on the day it’s due. (Like a dentist appointment that’s scheduled six months in advance).

So, like it or not, I use the Google Calendar app and web interface to keep track of future appointments and such. This is simply something that works better on the phone for me. :-(

Other flights of fancy?

I’ve had funky ideas about tying my aspirations and interests to some form of "natural time" like moon phases to ground my whole system to something outside of the artificial constructs of digital clocks and calendars (not to mention having a free, universal reminder right up there in the sky for free!)

I would also love to cycle between indoor/outdoor activities and distribute my creative energies between endeavors such as writing, art, and programming in a way that makes me feel like I’m not short-changing any one area for too long. It seems like a seasonal plan would be really interesting. Maybe when the birds migrate back in the spring, I would start doing woodworking projects or something like that? Who knows. It sounds neat.

Multitimer: another attempt at time tracking

My most recent stab at time tracking was creating a hardware timer with color-coded glowing keys for time categories and an LCD display with minute totals. It’s based on a Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller. I call it my "multitimer" and it works really well.

picture of my colorful hardware multitimer

Check out the multitimer project here.

The huge advantage of the hardware device is that it takes a split second to tap a key to switch tasks (it also keeps track of the totals, eliminating the entire tedious and error-prone transcription process!). That’s important because I recently wanted to track chaotic distractions. Most of the distractions were short, just a couple minutes. But sometimes they would stretch into half an hour. And there was no way of knowing which kind it would be beforehand!

To make matters worse, I was trying to track two different projects, and often switching between them.

Trying to write down the task switching wasn’t working because the distractions would come without warning and needed to be dealt with immediately. Trying to figure them out after the fact (or worse, at the end of the day), resulted in a lot of guesswork and I often found that the numbers just didn’t add up. It is always disturbing to lose account of my most precious of resources: time!

I really wanted to get to the bottom of it with a definitive record. As a bonus, maybe I could even debug my perception of time while accounting for it.

The multitimer really does meet this need. It works!

The big disadvantage of the multitimer in its current incarnation is that it’s a bulky build intended to live on a desk. I didn’t build a power supply, so it also has to remain plugged into a USB outlet to function. So it’s completely impractical unless you’re okay with using it only while tethered to a small area.

A micro version of the multitimer (almost certainly with a custom PCB) that fits in pocket or on a wrist would be awesome and way more practical. I’m sure regular surface-mount tactile momentary switches would be fine, particularly if they were somewhat recessed. And the big LCD could be replaced with a tiny OLED display that comes on only when needed. Frankly, I’m still incredulous that nobody has build such a thing. But I guess cell phones have eaten the market for a lot of wearable hardware. Let me know if you know of one!

Making sense of it all: wrap-ups

I did two full months of weekly and monthly wrap-ups at the beginning of 2020 and it felt like one of the most productive periods of my life.

There are three possible reasons for this correlation:

  1. I was already being really productive and the wrap-ups were yet another result of that productivity.

  2. The wrap-ups kept me focused, causing the productivity.

  3. The wrap-ups made me aware, for the first time, of just how productive I normally am.

Now that I’ve re-started the wrap-ups, I’m convinced it’s a little of all three.

And I’m equally convinced that’s it’s essential for making the logging worthwhile.

Filling a log with events and ideas and thoughts is great and has tons of benefits. Go for it!

But logging alone is probably not going to solve anything for you. I’m living proof that you can log or journal for years and years and still not feel like you’ve accomplished much of anything.

One of my traits is that I get really excited about a new hobby or area of learning. I go all in and do that thing with all my heart. And after I do that for a while, I move on to the next thing, abandon the old one.

(Not only am I spreading myself out across a ton of disparate things instead of big life goal-type stuff I think I should be doing, I’m also forgetting all of my accomplishments almost the moment I was done with them. Double trouble.)

Open up any one of my log entries and almost without fail, you’ll see me working on some sort of programming project, writing, art, building something, reading an interesting book. Or a little of each. It turns out I’ve always got something going on. I even finish things now and then. It doesn’t always feel like it, but the evidence is there on the page.

So, on the occasions when I’ve done a weekly wrap-up, I’ve consistently been blown away by all of the things I’ve done. Not just in quantity, but also in quality and diversity of areas of interesting. Neat.

But I’m also kind of *horrified(. Because I also see how much energy I’ve spent on things that never saw the light of day. Things I don’t even remember.

I think there’s a balance here. Part of me would love to be single-mindedly focused on, say, writing. I’d probably be on my fifth novel right now (and maybe even getting good at it, who knows?). But that’s not me. I love learning new stuff. I don’t want to be limited to one interest. I’ll take "pretty good" at a bunch of stuff as my consolation prize for not being at my absolute apex of ability in any one field.

But I’m not okay with just frittering away my time on whatever shiny thing catches my eye year after year. I do want to write novels. I don’t care if they’re published. I just really want to tell those stories.

The point is that if I’m actually paying attention, steering the ship, then that’s a decision I get to make. If I’m just on autopilot for decades at a time, then, well, I know how that turns out.

The wrap-up process, then, is a way to not just remind myself of how much I’m doing, but what I’m doing. It’s a sanity-check: am I headed in the right direction?

Weekly wrap-ups

These are fantastic! They’re a chance to celebrate success, re-visit ideas I had during the week, and pluck the important stuff from the entries to make something more closely approaching a narrative. If there was a pattern or theme during the week, it’ll appear now.

What’s really wild about the weekly review is how it helps put daily highs and lows into perspective. I know this is a really, really obvious thing to say. But it’s amazing how a terrible week turns out, when I can see the it as a whole, to have had just two crummy days. The rest were all good or even great. I wonder if doing this enough will eventually help me put those things in perspective while they’re happening?

Monthly wrap-ups

I have less experience with these, I’ll admit, but the concept is the same as the weekly. The time scale is just bigger. Instead of filtering the big events from the daily entries, now I’m filtering the big events from the weeklies. Patterns become even more apparent and everything is put in a larger perspective. As I said, I’ve managed to complete some of these in the past and it felt amazing.

The weekly wrap-ups are essential for me to accomplish the monthlies. If I had to read through a month’s worth of daily entries, it just wouldn’t get done. Oh sure, I could do it once or twice. But it would not be sustainable. Heck, some days I barely muster the will to transcribe my log from the previous day!

But there’s this irksome thing about trying to use weeklies to construct monthlies. This has has always bothered me and please tell me I’m not alone. Weeks don’t start and end on month boundaries! There are 52 weeks in a year and 12 months in a year. Any way you try to slice it, there’s just no way to get those 4.3 weeks per month to work out neatly.

What this means is that if you make your wrap-ups fall on a traditional Mon-Sun (or Sun-Sat) week, you can’t really use them to make the monthly wrap-ups!

Let’s take the end of August, 2022 for example:

Month  Day  Weekday
====================
Aug    28   Sunday     <-- week wrap-up
Aug    29   Monday
Aug    30   Tuesday
Aug    31   Wednesday  <-- month wrap-up
Sep    1    Thursday
Sep    2    Friday
Sep    3    Saturday

The weekly wrap-up for the week ending on August 28 is fine. You can use that for the August wrap-up. But the last three days, 29-31, are not yet summarized. "Well, that’s no problem," you say. "Just add the interesting stuff from those last three days into the monthly wrap-up." And you’re right. That’s fine.

The real problem comes when you try to do the September wrap-up. Now you’ve got a week that was already half accounted for in August. To really do it right, you’ve got to cross-check September’s wrap-up to avoid duplication on the overlap. Do do it right, you’ll pretty much have to re-visit the dailies to get the dates right. Annoying!

After agonizing over this for longer than I’d like to admit, I’ve settled on 7-day wrap-up "weeks" that start when the month starts. Now let’s see how August and September work out with this system:

Month  Day  Weekday
====================
Aug    28   Sunday
Aug    29   Monday     <-- last "week" wrap-up
Aug    30   Tuesday
Aug    31   Wednesday  <-- month wrap-up, "week" starts
Sep    1    Thursday   <-- first "week" starts
Sep    2    Friday
Sep    3    Saturday

The last week wrap-up in August is guaranteed to end before September starts. I’ll just need to include anything big from the last couple "extra" days, but that’s easy to remember because they’ll be the ones I most recently transcribed. September starts with a fresh new week wrap-up with no overlap.

All months get exactly four whole "weeks" plus three or less "extra" days at the end. It ain’t perfect, but it’ll do.

Yearly wrap-ups

I have yet to actually do one of these. But the idea is to continue the filtering process to the next stage: the "big stuff" from the dailies go into the weeklies and the big stuff from the weeklies go into the monthlies, and then the big stuff from the monthlies goes into the yearlies. The perspective keeps widening at each step.

I’m hoping a yearly review helps me see the bigger picture. I want to hone my sense for which projects to take on and whether or not I’m actually making progress on the things I want to accomplish with my time on this planet.

Lots of people make New Year’s resolutions and we all joke about them. I have often thought in terms of, "what I’m going to get done this year." Like most folks, my track record so far is…​not great.

There’s a quote that apparently nobody famous ever said (quoteinvestigator.com) in this exact form, but I like the sentiment anyway:

People overestimate what they can do in one year, and underestimate what they can do in ten years.

If I can get a handle on my months and years, then maybe I can even start to tackle the scope of decades.

General thoughts on note-taking

Benefits I’ve noticed from note-taking:

  • Habit-building

  • Capturing more ideas

  • Slightly elevated clarity of thought

  • Clearing the mind of distracting "to do" thoughts

  • Some peace of mind about how I’m spending my time, or at least that it’s being accounted for

  • No longer feel any guilt about buying notebooks and pens because I actually use them up

What tangible gains do I have to show for my dedication?

  • The log is an interesting record that may yet yield surprising insights

  • A permanent collection of notes - my whole wiki - that probably wouldn’t exist without the capture system

  • The wrap-ups are a celebration of what I’ve done

  • The habit itself

I think the journaling habit is more of an enabler of other activities than an actual end goal of its own. It can boost and support everything else you want to do.

Writing down good ideas boosts the generation of good ideas. Writing down goals and todos clears those from the mind so you don’t have to worry about them (for a while).

(In fact, it could be that one of the most valuable things my notes do for me is letting me not act on all of my ideas. By writing them down, I feel more confident I won’t forget them. Which means I’m more comfortable about not acting on them "Right now before I forget!" When I see the note again, I’ve had time to cool off and make a better decision about pursing that thing.)

Beyond the log, I’m still trying to find the best mix between a traditional personal "knowledge base" in the form of a text file wiki versus a zettelkasten (wikipedia.org) versus this website.

I have no intention of making any of my log public (not even the statistical information I glean from it). But I do think a lot of my notes would be much more useful to myself and others if they were on my website rather than in my private wiki.

(Actually, this website is part of my personal wiki. It’s all the same system. I just happen to publish the "ratfactor.com" part. Same with the Gopher (wikipedia.org) content I author every once in a while.)

You better believe I entertain doubts sometimes. I wonder what all of this is for. But then I do a search for a technical issue and find the answer in an article I wrote on my own website. Or a member of my family will ask when something happened and I’ll find it in my log…​and not only will I be able to give them a date, but I can tell them other interesting things that happened that day and it brings back fun memories. That’s feels pretty great.

Life logging long term

There are decades of my life, before the log, that are growing fuzzier and fuzzier as time goes on. In the era of the modern Web, I’m getting used to being able to access any piece of information instantaneously. But there are some things that no search engine can help me recall, like what I did in the year 2002 (to pick one at random). I suppose photos, papers, drawings, and other ephemera can help me piece some of it together. But the day-to-day is just pretty much gone and nothing can ever bring it back.

But, this decade after the log, I have the ability, if I want to, to recall almost any day in startling clarity. It’s all there.

Well, okay, there are limits to this. The "startling clarity" extends back at least three years. Then it starts to get fuzzier. And some days are just going to be "same old, same old" routine, let’s face it. But the log makes a colossal difference.

I’ve never lived in the past. I’m not big about living in the past. I’m not one of those people who fondly remembers high school or college as my prime days, with everything after that as all downhill. I don’t pine for the "good old days". I’ve always believed my best days are still ahead of me! But I take comfort in knowing the past is there, if I want it.

Crafting memories?

When comparing old log entries with my memory, I trust the log as the truth. I know how fallible my memory is! Over time, my memory is reshaped by what I’ve written (presumably to become more accurate!) In some ways, every entry is a way to shape my memory of the event.

My early transcriptions were 100% verbatim what I’d written in the notebook.

Then a move, Covid, and an onslaught of other challenges made life difficult and I got a little out of my transcription routine. I got caught up. Then I lost it again. And again. Somehow I’ve found myself with over 300 untranscribed entries in chunks spread over the last three years.

(I’m trying to tackle this by transcribing two entries per day: one recent and one from a gap in the past. But that’s not going great and at my current rate, it’s going to be another two years before I’m caught up. Sobs.)

Where I’m going with this is that I found myself transcribing hard times from three years ago. And, gosh, reading and writing those entries brought back three year old pain and frustration like it was yesterday.

And I just can’t see the value in revisiting those negative emotions now or in the future.

Also, since I have children, I’m cognizant of the fact that someday I may be leaving this record to them. (Whether or not they would ever be interested in actually reading it is hard to say.) How much should I censor myself for their sake?

I don’t really want the kids to read my old grievances - things I’ve already mostly forgotten - and think, "Gosh, Dad sure was an anxious, angry guy!"

Well, first of all, everything must go into the notebook. I think that’s really important for a capture system. The paper notebooks have got to be able to accept all manner of foul language and angry scribbled drawings. That’s sacred.

drawing of a nasty notebook with cursing

But for the final record in the transcriptions, it seems like there’s a balance to be found:

  • I don’t want to lie.

  • But I don’t think I need to relive every moment of misery, either.

So I’ve given myself permission, when I’m transcribing, to be factual about what’s happened. But I’m leaving out the emotional first-person prose that brings it all back.

I’m leaving out: "Biff made another sly remark about my dinosaur and I HATE HIM SO MUCH! I’ll get my revenge! Now everything is crap!"

Instead, I write: "Really frustrated with Biff. I let it bother me for the rest of the day."

I keep whatever part I think actually matters. I just take the heat out of it.

Now the log has given me yet another opportunity to see things in perspective and learn from them. Not fuel to rekindle old angers over petty crap that really doesn’t matter in the long run.

The end

Okay, that’ll do for now. I’d love to answer any questions I might somehow not have covered in the text above. I’ve been trying to write this page for a long, long time and I’m glad it will finally see the light of day. Thanks for reading!

Update 2022-02-27: In the process of writing this article, I’ve gained additional clarity about the system and one of my first actions has been the addition of a new "cards" section of the website: Dave’s Virtual Box of Cards.