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Indexing two years of notebooks

Reposted from the private Forte Labs forum, for students of Tiago Forte’s online courses.

Austin Kleon’s post “The importance of revisiting notebooks” inspired me to pull my stack of filled notebooks off the shelf and build an index of their contents. I’ve doodled and kept stream-of-consciousness logs in notebooks for years and years, but I only started keeping old notebooks in 2015 — possibly because that was when I first tried using the Doane Paper small utility notebook. I like them too much to throw away, I guess. Since then, I’ve also used Leuchtturm 1917 A5 dotted notebooks. Not that the choice of notebook matters — these are just the ones I like. To each their own.

My sketchnotes from Building a Second Brain are a good example of my typical style. I drew these during a live workshop session when taking the class in April 2017.


I take notes like this whenever I’m at a conference or watching talks on YouTube. Sometimes I’ll do it while reading, especially if it’s for a book club.

Up until last weekend, I hadn’t systematically reviewed any of these notebooks. I’ve really just been doing it for fun, but it is also fun to flip through the old pages and see what was on my mind and capturing my interest a few years ago. The value I get out of this is something like the random note tool Tiago wrote about in “Building an Idea Generator”. By making an index of the notebooks in Evernote as well, I’m hoping to open them up for even more serendipitous encounters.

My analog index gets its own notebook in Evernote, with one note per physical notebook.


I keep a table of contents linking to the individual indexes. Each entry in the contents includes the volume number (assigned sequentially), the date range when it was active, and a description of the notebook. These are the coordinates that help me find the notebook on my shelf.


The index note itself contains three parts: a nickname, the coordinates, and a list of topics. The nickname is chosen after the fact, based on the mood I get from the notebook and what phrases jump out at me. In this example, it’s a fragment from the famous Richard Feynman quote.


The list of topics is not comprehensive. Again, I flip through the pages and just capture the things that still seem interesting to me in retrospect. If there is a page of notes that makes me happy to look back on, I’ll scan it and put it in the index. I try not to overload the note with images. Scanning is a pain in the ass and two or three images is plenty to keep the indexes fun to browse.

I’m not sure I’d recommend any of this as a practical endeavor, but I do find it enormously satisfying and fun. If what I’ve described is at all interesting to you, then I recommend that you:

  • Read Mike Rohde’s The Sketchnote Handbook. Practice sketchnoting while watching a lecture or reading.
  • When you feel stuck, train yourself to grab a notebook, free write and sketch whatever comes to mind. I find fifteen minutes of noodling almost always pays off.
  • If you do like fancy notebooks, deliberately fuck up the first page. Get yourself over any inhibition about “ruining” the nice notebook. A fancy-pants $20 notebook still costs something like $0.10 a page. Accept that there will be messy pages; it’s not a big deal.
  • Use one notebook until you fill it. Mix topics wildly. Don’t try to organize it or jump around (I’m anti-Bullet Journal in this respect). Treat it like an append-only log and optimize for throughput. If there’s something in there that needs to be organized, take a picture and copy it into your digital notes.