It doesn’t keep

Author's photograph of several pads of paper on a desk referenced in the article.
Various paper pads I keep at my desk. (Ninja Turtle for scale.)

Reflecting on how I use paper and notebooks.

Paper helps me think. I’ve used plenty of Field Notes and Baron Fig notebooks over the years. But truth be told? Most of my notebooks become obstacles, not tools. Three-fourths-filled Pandora’s boxes of contextless notes, forgotten or abandoned to-dos, poems or sketches that I cringe to look back on, and other detritus that reduces the likelihood I’ll ever actually make anything out of what they contain.

Reflecting on this reality has led me to start preferring pads and notebooks with tear-away sheets. I find that I’m more productive and creative by focusing on getting rid of paper.

The mindset I’ve adopted is: Paper gets processed. In a Getting Things Done sense, that means all paper — sticky notes, legal pads, napkin sketches, and (slowly) my former costly notebooks filled front to back with day pages1 — gets treated as one big Inbox. A piece of paper represents Work To Be Done. Paper carries, but it doesn’t keep.

Processing the paper could mean:

  • Trashing it. Deciding that whatever I captured is of no value, crumpling it up, and tossing it on the metaphorical fire. (Or literal, if I’m camping.) This is hard for me with creative writing like lyric ideas or bits of poems … but it’s also necessary. Storing every pleasant word combo that crosses my brain leads to a creative traffic jam.
  • Transcribing it. If the paper has something on it I want to further develop, I might capture and transcribe it into Notes (for songs) or Ulysses (for other writing). If there’s a sketch or diagram or something useful about the form, I’ll snap a photo and keep that alongside the written transcription. Importantly, I don’t let these images stack up in my camera roll.
  • Transferring it. Putting the idea the paper represents into the specific thing it should be: a task on my NOW2 list, an item on my grocery list, an appointment on my calendar, an entry in my Day One journal, etc.

Processing paper — deciding between trashing, transcribing, or transferring — is a productive friction that helps me make. It’s freeing, because I don’t feel pressured to write anything important. It’s focusing, because not every idea I capture goes forward. It’s motivating, because I am gaining confidence in a process that turns random neuron firings into actual Works I can share with the world (and not just abandoned secret scribblings).

I have no doubt that I’ve thrown away paper with marks that could have become good songs, good articles, even good books. But I’ve learned the hard way that if I try to do everything, I end up making a whole lot of nothing.

If this approach is interesting to you, I have a few tips:

  • Keep various sorts of paper handy. Different sizes and patterns suit different types of thinking.
  • Avoid fixed bindings. Could-tear-it-out-if-I-have-to is not the same as loose or perforated.
  • Have a wastebasket handy. If there’s not a fireplace or trash can in your office, where’s the paper gonna go? You don’t want obstacles between you and processing.
  • Find a good processing cadence. I don’t process every notepad every day; the legal pad that lives on my music stand gets processed every few weeks as needed. Bits of paper on my desk get processed at the end of every work day.
  • Use more paper than you’re used to. If you write everything on one big piece of paper it’s very difficult to process, and you may as well be using a notebook.

And some paper recommendations:

  • Ampad gold fibre notepads, 5”x8” – ~$25 for a dozen. I also have some legal pad sized ones. These are nice if I’m working on a talk or client deliverable and need to have several sheets going at once. The relatively thin paper is very satisfying to crumple up and toss across the room.
  • Doane Paper Flap Jotter, small – $13 for a 3-pack. I use these on the go. Normally a very short scrap of an idea goes directly into Drafts, but in some contexts if feels rude or not classy to pull out my phone. It’s also practically useful to carry paper you can leave as a note. I’m not a above a 79-cent drug store memo pad but the Grid + Lines pattern and chipboard cover make these a real treat.
  • Baron Fig Mastermind desk pad, standard – $15 for 2(!). My go-to for when I need to wireframe or storyboard something. This paper starred previously in my post about sketching a blog post.
  • Square memo pad – Varies. The one in the photo is a Neenah Environment Papers sampler that came in a goodie bag at Design Camp. It lives on my desk now. I will be sad when this one is spent, as they seem to not be for sale. I don’t like sticky notes (no shuffle) but I do love a small form factor. These are a bit bigger than a Post-it at 3.5″ square.

  1. Day pages are just what they sound like; I write the date on the top of a two-page spread, and keep a little log in a Bullet Journal-esque fashion. Appointments, things I did or bought, things I ate, etc.
  2. NOW is an Apple Reminders list of next actions it is possible to accomplish that day. I swap tasks between this and a LATER list of things I need to do soon-ish, but can’t or won’t get done that day for whatever reason.