This year, make your notebook a logbook

Bill Gates paid $500,000 per page for Da Vinci’s Leicester codex. Your ideas are worth just as much to you over your lifetime, because you never know what decision, sketch, or idea is the one that can change your future.

A notebook is just a bunch of paper with scattered crutches for short term memory, but a logbook is a story — your companion through thinking, planning, doing, and reflecting.

Logbook page for sketching proportions of an ice carving, side and front views. An initial sketch was printed off multiple times and additional iterative detail overlaid for each version. The loose pages were then taped back into the logbook chronologically.

In engineering school, they had us format our notebooks as logbooks. We were trained to be practical problem solvers, open team members, and accountable for our method of getting work done.

That’s what a logbook does — it makes a space for accountability, creativity, exploration and review.

Let’s break this one idea down into useful tools:

Accountability: a logbook is forever.

A logbook is meant to be reflected on days and months and years after a project or plan has passed.

I’ve kept a logbook going back years now, first because it was a required habit and discipline from engineering, and now because I value the thoughts, planning, process and sketches that live there. It can manage the smallest to-do item and the biggest blue sky thought. It’s an odometer for progress and growth and needs to have a clear core like this:

You logbooks should have a consistent system of recording progress. Here is the one I’ve been using the last few years.

TIP: You logbooks should have a consistent system of recording progress. Generally the page for to-do items is carried over from the day before (any undone items, you have to rewrite, and that reminds you that you are taking a while to get them done), items can then be prioritized and marked done. Decisions, actions and especially bits of wisdom should all have an emphasis beyond the checklist items. Always include the date and leave lots of whitespace for changes and for mental clarity.

Creativity: a logbook is beautiful [to you].

A logbook follows a consistent quality and format: dates, layout and above all, deliberate care for your ideas. Beauty has the feature that it takes more time than just a scribble — the care you invest in documenting makes you respect and consider the idea, its details, and its connections to others. It can also be shared more easily and with more pride-of-place.

A woodworking design for organic shapes carved into the box sides. This took a bit more time to sketch but better captures the idea I had in mind.

TIP: Using a pen or pencil is fine, but also using an alcohol-based marker like a Prismacolor allows you to really add a 3D element of shadow and light. It also allows you to pull diagrams away from the surrounding notes.

Exploration: a logbook is thinking aloud.

It is part of the doing, part of the problem solving and exploration. It is a computer, camera, conversation, database if used properly.

Write to yourself, share the space with others in a meeting. Hand them the pencil so they can elaborate and feel like they are part of your thought process and trusted.

Rewrite ideas for clarity, refine and riff on them for exploration. Describe your work to yourself with captions and explantation so that your mind is always questioning and exploring.

A logbook is a mirror, amplifier, and a filter. The more you write and sketch, the more you find focus and clarity. Even the act of looking back a few days later on your logbook can solve problems in minutes that you mulled over for hours.

TIP: At any time, keep a single high quality book and be generous with the whitespace — don’t try and save paper, you need room to organize and create. Keeping one per project is fun in theory, but it will not be around when you shift gears to that project.

Review: A logbook is like an airplane black box.

If you are proud of your project’s outcome, you will reflect warmly on your logbook. If it didn’t work out, your logbook will be the help you need to see when and how it deviated from plan.

TIP: Rewind your logbook. If something worked out the way you expected (and if it didn’t), add an update note next to the original plan, sketch, or decision point.

Margin notes from a future you: adding notes at key points in a logbook helps close the loop on decisions and help you make better ones. It also makes a logbook a lesson book for yourself.

Get started now

  1. Go buy a quality notebook. Lovely paper. Get a great pen, pencil, and light Prismacolor alcohol marker.
  2. Write your contact information on the inside of the cover and todays date. (When you fill the book, add in the completion date next to it)
  3. Every day put the date in the top corner of a new page.
  4. List the items you want to get done. Move yesterday’s undone items to today or forget about them.
  5. Use the next pages for the day’s ideas, sketches, brainstorms, iterations. Take the time.
  6. Label and clarify each of these, so that someone finding you notebook understands your line of reasoning. That someone will likely be you.
  7. Go back in your logbook and add in “Update” sections to ideas and decision you made in the past. Especially write in outcomes you could only guess at during that time.
  8. When your notebook is done, look over it, write the top 3 or 5 or 10 lessons you learned during that time in the front cover. Use your phone to take a few photos of the best ideas, sketches, and moments in the logbook. Fold over the corners of those pages. Congratulations, you have just written a book without even realizing it, full of reality and wisdom!

Get to it.

You grow through doing, you grow through thinking and analyzing. You can’t do it all in your head. You can’t do it all from a keyboard. You need the space between that first spark of an idea and final product, and that space is your logbook. It’s the journey, it’s the diary of doing.

Storing the ‘Best Of’ from a notebook. In this case an iCloud album called ‘notebooks’ so there is continuity from one physical book to the next, because….
You should expect to end up with quite a few notebooks. Two or more a year!


Bill Gates buys Leicester Codex:

Interactive developer for science and data outreach,

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