Yellow legal pads are my go-to business tool. They’re cheap and easy to find – I buy them in 3-packs at the office supply store. And they’re immediate. With no software to learn and no program to load, nothing could be simpler.
Perhaps I love lined paper because I started college in 1993. I went to Johns Hopkins, a school my dad had graduated from exactly 40 years before me. The day before we left for Freshman year I packed our Volvo to the brim with all of my stuff. He watched me struggle to shut the back of the car and said, “I arrived at Hopkins with a suitcase, a typewriter, and $40 pinned to the inside of my jacket.” Well, I arrived at Hopkins with several huge duffel bags, an enormous desktop computer, a mini fridge, and all sorts of dorm accessories. Although our luggage was different, both of us took notes in classes in Gilman Hall the same way – on paper with a pencil. In 1993 I didn’t have an email address or a cell phone. Writing things down was the way that I learned, and it still is.
I got an email last week on this topic from a crafter named Danielle. She said:
Right now I feel like I am in a rut of the next steps on where I want to take in my business. I have so many ideas booming in my head and not enough time to test them…Curious, how do you keep note of your ideas? I use Evernote but didn’t know if there is a more crafty tool out there for that?
My response? I keep track of everything on a yellow legal pad. I hope she wasn’t disappointed.
On the first page of the pad I begin my to-do list. I just sit down and list every task that needs to get accomplished. I make little notes next to some of the items, cross off parts of others as I finish them, and continuously add items until I reach the bottom of the page. Sometimes I get to the bottom right away, and sometimes it take a week or so.
I love a running to-do list because I often work in tiny snippets of time. If you run a business while being a stay-at-home mom I’m sure you know what this is like. A list at the ready means I can quickly see what I need to do, choose something, and get started. It’s so satisfying to cross things off.
The yellow pad is not just a to-do list, though. It’s also a place to take notes and I take a lot of notes. There are:
- Notes from Skype calls with colleagues who mention things I need to look into
- Notes from articles I’m reading or people I’m interviewing as I do research for blog posts or freelance articles
- Math problems I’m doing to figure out how to price new products
- Show notes I write down while recording podcast episodes
- Ideas for new patterns, new ebooks, new blog posts, and more
It makes me feel good to know that all of this information lives in one place, in real life, where I can get at it and reference it. I save all the old legal pads. If I ever need to confirm a quote from someone or remember the details of a conversation from last year, I’ve got records.
Once my to-do list page is full and I’ve done most of the things on the list, I copy over those that are still undone onto a fresh page, and then begin to add new items. I keep working like this – to-do list, notes, to-do list, notes – until I reach the last page of the pad, then file it and start a fresh one.
There are definitely disadvantages to using a paper-and-pencil method of note taking and to-do list making. If I’m away and I leave my yellow legal pad at home I’m a bit adrift. And, of course, I could lose it or it could accidentally get thrown away. But I love my yellow legal pads and when my kids see them they say, “That’s Mommy’s business.”
I think it’s easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that we need fancy tools in order to be productive. Fancy tools are awesome (I’ve professed my love for Pocket here before), but really it’s not the tool as much as what you do with it. You can do a lot with a pad of notebook paper on the desk and a pen in your hand.
Cheryl Arkison says
I feel that way about my black sketch books. Everything starts, and often finishes in those. And, like you, I work chronologically through them regardless of the topic at hand. I would rescue them in a fire before my quilts themselves.
When I am writing a book the work is always done first long hand, on pads of paper too.
Me, too! I have a hard cover black sketch book and all the visual ideas go in there. I just work from the beginning to the end. It’s the best.
My go to record keeping tool is graph paper notebooks that are about 5X8 with black covers. I can take notes, do to-do lists, do record keeping, do product development/costing, sketch in them, etc. I should really do them chronologically, but instead I have four or five going at once. They tend to have different themes because they are in different locations in my house. I do date all my entries though, so that I have an idea when things happened in each notebook.
Andrea Rennick says
YES! I do the same with a large 3 subject wire coil bound notebook. I used to try and section things off, but now just start at page one and go through the same as you do. I’ve tried loads of things and this just works for me.
Pati Fried says
Oh Abby, there are so many things I love about following your blog – now I understand why! I am a paper and pencil gal also! I used to have stacks of notebooks everywhere, divided into different categories. I loved the note taking, but was always searching for the right one. An architect friend shared with me that he keeps a small journal with him at all times and puts everything in one journal, then logs them chronologically as they are filled. He could always go back to find old notes. Loved the idea, but I wanted a larger surface.
I ldecided to go old school with the black and white composition notebooks we all used in school. I love that the hard cover is sturdy enough to toss in my bag, yet small enough that it usually fits in my purse if needed. After reading your post, I will no longer feel embarrassed when I pull it out for a meeting and leave my iPad in my bag.
If I were doing a lot of traveling I would totally choose a composition notebook!
Yes, and you could even collage the cover….. Oh, the possibilities…
My uncle who was a construction lawyer did the same thing. It was something I was kind of already doing, but it reinforced what a great idea it was. I just need to do one notebook/journal at a time though. Can’t seem to do that though as I like to have notebooks available in all the locations I might need them so I don’t have to interrupt my process or what I’m doing.
Sarah - Crafts from the Cwtch says
Sounds very much like the ‘bullet journal’ method I use. Can’t beat it!
Yes! For me it’s a 6″x 8″ spiral notebook (fits in my bag and goes everywhere with me) from Greenroom, but totally the same concept. Everything is in there – lists, ideas, notes, etc. I have a preferred brand because of the size, paper quality, and line spacing. (Narrow ruled only, please.) My dad is a paper person, too – he just prefers 3-ring binders. =)
I’ve been self-employed for nearly 25 years, and over that time filled hundreds of notebooks, legal pads, and sketchbooks. I didn’t realize how many I had until I began clearing out my office in preparation for a move from Minnesota to Texas. It took me hours to go through them all to see if there were any gems I needed to save. Eventually I filled two large trash bags with my ideas, thoughts, research, and drawings. It was hard to part with them. Fortunately, most of my notes and sketches are now created, stored, and organized on my Macbook, iPhone, and iPad, or in the cloud.
Debbie Grifka says
I love pen and paper too – I use a spiral bound notebook in a similar fashion (though I’m not as good at keeping the old ones). I do have quite a few notes in my phone too, but those are more ideas than to-do items 🙂
I always enjoy your podcasts, though I am often way behind!
Amy, I thought that I was the only one! I love my yellow legal pads, I can hardly remember life without them. I keep notes almost the same way that you do! Phone conversations, math problems, side lists, cross off, start a new page. I love it. I love my iPad, too, but sometimes you just need pencil and paper.
Can’t wait to meet you in February at craft con!
Marilyn Nance says
1–No dead batteries
2–No need to fine an electrical outlet
3–Easy to add sketches/drawings
4–Can always borrow a pen/pencil
5–No “What just happened to everything I typed”
This is a tool that speaks straight to my heart!!
I’ve been searching for the perfect tool for managing my to do lists and notes and it’s been staring me straight in the face this whole time. I used to use this same method at work and I was so organized and on top of things all the time. Why haven’t I thought to bring this to my home office/creative small business?!?
Sondra Borrie says
As always, your post is packed full of valuable information. Thank you for writing such quality posts and sharing your thoughts with all of us. And yes, I love using yellow legal pads and black sketchbooks to document everything. As a previous occupational therapist, I firmly believe in the strong correlation between cognition and eye/hand coordination.
I was not aware of your blog at the time you wrote the post about Auriful. I just read it. THANK YOU so much for dealing with this. I was surprised and disgusted by his comments and being Italian is not an excuse for his behavior. Again, thank you for pursuing this. Sexism is alive and well, as demonstrated yesterday by the Republican Congress. Equality continues to be a struggle.
We need to move forward, as women…not backwards.
Great post, again, today!
Best to you,
I used to do this at an old job. It was so satisfying to cross things off the list. By that I mean putting a line through the entire task, not just putting a check mark by it. It’s a much different feel than clicking on “delete”. It also adds a sense of accomplishment when I can see all the crossed off items.
I think I’m going to get back to it. Have you checked out Getting Things Done? It can be used completely non-digitally, or not.
Gayle Bryant says
I also need paper and pencil. Years ago I had major surgeries that left me brain damaged so I can’t memorize and lost my visualization skills except for photographic memory. At that time, I was beginning college as an adult learner and learned tricks to help me through readings and exam preparation. These hold true today – if I write my notes twice, I remember them since repetition is the key, I try at times to evolve into a more complicated system but have returned to to-do lists and notes, with sketches thrown in amongst it all. Thanks for the blog – it’s always interesting.
Rori Jensen says
Thank you Abby for your business wisdom and your willingness to take the time to share. I look forward to Wednesdays and your posts arriving in my inbox. Your consistency has been an encouragement to me. I have a Moleskin composition book, with a durable, way-cool-looking, leather cover (I just HAD to support a young artist!.) I write everything in there…my to-do list, phone messages, sermon notes, party planning and when it is full, I store it on a shelf. No more little pieces of paper floating around. I use a regular size Midori Traveler’s Journal for my calendar and custom inserts you can purchase on etsy.
Oh thank goodness! I thought I was so far out of technology when I say I use my “eye-cal”- which is an oldschool huge paper desk calendar which I can easily see everything all at once on, and a small pad of lined paper for everything from to-do lists to my billing schedule. People always tell me I “should” switch everything to an electronic book-keeping and calendar but it just doesn’t work for me. 😀
Love this! I carry my blank spiral-bound journal everywhere, for the same reasons – they contain my running to-do lists as well as notes from every business-related meeting and conversation I have. Digital options can be great, but for me nothing works as well as actual, real paper!
I have this conversation with my hubby all. the. time. He’s always trying to get me away from pen and paper to fancy online systems. But I just love the immediacy and the physicality of doing it ‘old skool’. Yes…I love some of the technology, but I love paper, be it for list, notes or my diary. Good to know I’m not alone!
Thank you Abby–I get your excellent newsletter and saw this article there first–it seems so simple, but I do think that one thinks better (more deeply) when making the physical motion of writing or crossing out or carrying over some entries to the next day’s page. I’ve tried using a journal and then a college lined spiral notebook, but wasn’t happy with them for some reason–switched to the legal pad after your newsletter arrived .and love it. I think some of it is the satisfaction of turning each day over to see a fresh page. A lot like those montages of flipping calendar pages in classic films.
I’m so glad to hear that, Nancy! I love the act of crossing things off and flipping pages, too.
Nina keilin says
I agree with this. I use a spiral bound notebook. I have 15 years’ worth saved for my solo law practice. I jot down notes and to do items plus someone’s contact info quickly on the phone. If I don’t immediately get to input it in outlook I can page back a few days in the notebook and find it. I’m old school too, and I still write things down, even though I am completely computer dependent and was an early computer adopter.
I worked in publishing in the 80s, and we used computers to write long before anyone else did, but they were not internet connected yet. People in journalism always were used to typing their own things because we used typewriters before. Oddly enough, lawyers used to dictate or hand write for secretaries to type. Those days are long gone but for a few 75-year-old male lawyers who never learned to type.
Marsha Hodgkins says
Hi Amy. I found your podcast last week and while doing an immense amount of chain-piecing, I listened to a number of the back ones. Your content is meaty and I enjoy listening and thinking about the topics you bring up with your guests.
I use the college composition books mainly, but always have a yellow notepad by me to make notes to follow-up with later (like when you mention something I want to research more). I have an iPhone and like the Notes feature but there’s something about writing in a pad/composition book that just feels RIGHT to me….and I”m not giving it up! Loved your post!
This summer I discovered the Creative Live classes. And seeing you there with your class about emailing, it made me your fan!
I subscribed to different kinds of websites/newsletters to learn and of course also to yours.
When I read your post here, I realized that is was another thing in common, besides sewing, our age and being the mother of girls!
I too make lists. In my business (which I just started) but also in my private life. I love to do lists and most of all a list where every item is crossed off!
Thanks for the inspiration!
Greetings from Norway
So lovely to hear from you, Nicole.
Virginia Crawford says
I’m so relieved to hear you say this, Abby! I was beginning to think I was the only one… I love the feel of pen on paper, and I make most of my to-do lists in a refill pad (like legal pads, but white). I recently started to make them in Evernote, and that’s okay, except it doesn’t come naturally to me and it’s not particularly convenient. Sewing for a living, my pc isn’t in the sewing room whereas my refill pad is. Certainly, not everything has to be done on the computer just because it’s there. It all comes down to what’s effective for the individual. I love my good old fashioned paper and pen 🙂
Paul McGuire says
Even for someone who isn’t into pen and paper notes this post is helpful for recognizing the sorts of things that one should be taking note of somewhere. I started searching for a good list like this when a failure of my systems led to an oversight. Thankfully it didn’t have a huge impact on a case but it could have.
Personally I store everything in Evernote where I can search the history but then I’ve always preferred electronic notes. It is so easy to find old notes and keep track of little details where you can find it when you need it.
Shirley Freeman says
I have been reading you newsletter for 5 minutes and I am so happy I found you. I have already learned so much about what I need to do to get where I want to go. Thanks a bunch
I so glad to see that I’m not the only low-tech gal! I spend way too much time on the computer, so when I can get work done off the computer, I take advantage of it.
It’s lovely to hear your views on this – agree with so much of what you say about using paper and lists. Long ago I realised how important to my thinking it was to have a pen which felt good to hold and use, the type of ink that flowed properly, paper which was the right weight and feel, the notebook of a good size with a cover which could vary in appearance but felt ‘right’ for what was going into it. Lots of tactile experience with the act of writing makes my thought processes so much more satisfying and creative. Of course, I can decide to use my ipad or laptop, and I’m so glad to be able to do that, but they honestly don’t make me feel I can really reach into a deeper level of thinking; they’re about more perfunctory things that need to get done. Now I’m thinking going back to a fountain pen and ink is far more environmentally friendly, though, like much else, not so convenient.
Nordie @ Writing about books says
Once in a while I go looking for electronic tools to help me out on things like “to do lists”. I have tried things like evernote etc, but have never managed to settle on any software in particular.
I’ve got out of the habit for various reason, but one of the things I did (back before we used Portable Computers with wifi at work, haha), was have a notebook to take notes of meetings, and I would also have multiple post it notes somewhere….During meetings, generally when I was bored, or my mind was skittish with too much to do, I’d write my todo list on the post-its. Easily movable, ditch-able, etc. Great for working!
At work I now use the “check flag” option on emails, which creates an annoying pop up, or create a specific task, again for the annoyance factor. Surprisingly effective, at least for me.
I have yet to find an equivalent for home, though I am currently looking at the hardback diary sitting on my table, barely used
OMG. I LOVE this. You’re like the orginal bullet journaler. LOL. ;0
I have been keeping journals forever! But I love the idea of the legal pads. It’s flip-able. Is that a word?
Thanks for validating paper. 😉