First Published: January 29, 2016 | Last Updated: May 16, 2021

The gist: whether you use one bullet journal or a different notebook for each project you work on, using a notebook organization system to structure your notetaking at work, what's important is that you have a system that works for you. Here are a few options to try.

There’s too much to do, always.

I know you know the feeling.

Between work stuff, personal stuff, and “other stuff,” focusing is easier said than done.

You’re always coming up with one idea or another. And never at a time when you can actually work on it.

You have due dates, to-do lists, plans, and outlines out the wazoo. For multiple projects, with multiple companies or organizations, involving multiple people, and with different priorities.

My best advice?

Don’t try to keep track of it all in your head. It hurts! 🤣

As David Allen said in Getting Things Done (one of our favorite productivity books), "if it's on your mind, your mind isn't clear."

"If it's on your mind, your mind isn't clear. Anything you consider unfinished in any way must be captured in a trusted system outside your mind, or what I call a collection tool, that you know you'll come back to regularly and sort through." - Getting Things Done, David Allen

Instead, become best friends with your own notebook organization system.

I'm talking about your own set of notebooks, planners, folders, and other files. That are organized in a way that makes sense for YOU.

Which tools you choose, and the combination of them, aren’t as important as the fact that you have SOMEWHERE to “get out” important info other than your brain.

And as much as I love apps and technology, sometimes you just need to put pen (or pencil, marker, lipstick...whatever you can find) to paper.

So this post will walk you through my own notebook organization system and how to create your own that works for you. Since after all, productivity is personal. 😀

Note: Some of these links are affiliate links. So if you decide to buy anything, we'll receive a commission. Most creators say something like "100% of this goes back into the business," but we're not most creators. Some months it goes into the business, others it will be used to buy inappropriate amounts of chocolate. Remember, working brighter is about balance!

Systems That Have Influenced My Notebook Organization

As you know, I love reading books about personal organization and development. Even more than your average nerd. 🤓

So instead of following a single rigid system or methodology from one of those books, I've built a sort of custom system by pulling the parts I need from each.

And that's how I encourage you to approach my own work, too.

Bullet Journal Method

The system I probably follow the most is Ryder Carroll's Bullet Journal Method. It's the methodology I use for my main notebook-journal-hybrid, the one that's by my side all day.

Concepts like indexing, collections, rapid logging, and migration from bullet journaling have been revolutionary for ALL my productivity systems, not even just the analog ones.

Literally, my entire Notion dashboard is set up using borrowed thoughts and ideas from bullet journaling.

Getting Things Done

Since I previously mentioned David Allen, you know I'm a big fan of the Getting Things Done methodology.

It was the first one I read on this "productivity journey" so it set a lot of the foundation for me.

Things like the capture habit, inbox processing, and next-action decisions are probably the tactics from GTD most important to my workflow.

Fresh Start Workbook

Finally, my business coach, Amber McCue, has a business planning workbook I go through every year as part of annual and quarterly planning.

And while I don't have that workbook out and open every single week, there are planning and reflection exercises from it that I write out in my bullet journal every single week.

How My Notebook System Has Changed With My Work

I originally wrote this post back in January 2016 (when I was working full-time, freelance writing, and managing this blog as well as others) to explain how I keep track of multiple projects at work.

Obviously, my systems changed a ton when I left in-house work. Plus I've gotten older and smarter with age. 😝

That meant eventually, the original version of this post could use some improvements.

So this version contains my system as of 2021.

Originally, I had one bullet journal-eque notebook, plus a planner, for each job I had (so at least 3 of each at any given moment 😬).

As my life and career simplified, so did my notebook stack.

Plus, I use digital tools, primarily Notion, more than I used to. A lot of what used to go in my supplementary notebooks now goes in there, and it's mostly just my daily journaling and planning going on paper.

So these days, I've got my:

  • Bullet journal that combines planning and in-the-moment journaling and rapid logging
  • Mindset journal that I use for visualizations
  • Notion dashboard

So instead of just breaking down how I used to organize my work notebooks in 2015, I'm going to use my system evolution to demonstrate the different approaches to notebook organization.

There are multiple approaches I want to get into.

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Different Approaches to Notebook Organization

Approach A: Multiple Notebooks for Multiple Projects

staying organized with notebooks and planners

This was the approach I took when I was juggling in-house work, freelance work, and entrepreneurship.

Each of those job had a completely different location, workflow, and more. So it made the most sense at the time to just keep everything separate.

While using multiple notebooks might make someone else feel scattered, I like using multiple planners and notebooks at a time. It helps me focus and compartmentalize.

For example, take when I was working on my side hustle before work in the morning. I wouldn’t see my day job tasks in the same planner, reminding me that I only had an hour left before I had to switch focus.

And then I'd leave that notebook at home when I left for the office, where my day job notebooks were waiting.

Then I would also separate a planner from a notebook for note-taking.

In the planner, I would:

  • Mark any deadlines, due dates, and meetings
  • Prioritize my top few tasks of the day (that's right, I've changed my mind about MITs)

I’m not doing detailed planning since there’s not a ton of room (and we all know how I love detailed and actionable to-do lists!) and for me, that’s best done online.

But the task of writing down what I’m going to focus on sets intentions for the day. And having the open planner sitting besides me creates a physical reminder of where my priorities should be at any given point in the day.

Approach B: One Bullet Journal for Everything

blog brainstorm notebook

Approach A is great for people who need to physically separate and compartmentalize things in order to mentally do the same. However, since reading the Bullet Journal Method, I've gotten better at compartmentalizing my notes in other ways.

And since I'm not switching between multiple locations, having one notebook or planner in each isn't necessary. One bullet journal for my two businesses works fine.

With bullet journaling, I just drop thoughts into my daily log throughout the week, instead of deciding what category or notebook they go in first. Then during my daily review, I process them and digitize anything I need to "keep," putting it into the right area of my Notion setup at that time.

(Once again, refer to Getting Things Done for the importance of a review habit. 🙃)

If something's going to require a lot of notes, like a meeting with someone else, I'll create a bullet journal collection for it.

One of my favorite concepts from the Bullet Journal Method was "letting ideas breath" and not always trying to fit as much as possible on one page. So I'm quick to start a dedicated page for something.

And instead of using physical notebooks to categorize ideas, I instead use things like color coding, collections, headers, and dividers.

Approach C: Few Mini Systems

may designs undated planners

The final approach I recommend is a "halfway" between approaches A and B: you have a main bullet journal, but also have supplemental calendars or notebooks with their own systems.

Maybe you have a planner, a bullet journal, and a meetings notebook.

Maybe you have a work bullet journal and a home bullet journal.

The true mark of a PERSONAL productivity system is that you've customized it for what you need.

I believe all note taking and personal knowledge management systems eventually end up as approach C. You try some strict systems, take the parts that work for you, and build something of your own, as I explained in my own approach's evolution.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

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Organizing Tips for Any Method

Regardless of which approach you choose, here are a few ways you can keep your notebook (or notebooks) organized...

Always Keep It Close By

Keep your main notebook as close to you as possible throughout your day, especially while you work or while you mind wander. That way, as soon as an "open loop" or thought pops into your head that you want to get out (remember, "if it's on your mind, your mind isn't clear").

Keep it open next to you if you trust yourself.

But if you're a spiller like me, keep it closed. Learn from my Diet Coke and water stains. 😝

Prioritize Function Over Aesthetics

This is especially for the bullet journals, where the function vs. fanciness debate constantly rages. When it comes to things like color coding, layouts, and decorations...use them, but carefully.

Don't be afraid to experiment with those things as ways to better organize the information in your notes and make your notebook easily browsable for future reference. I like to say take notes and organize them with Future You in mind.

But like most things, visually enhancing your notes has a point of diminishing return.

Things like highlighting and color coding can help make your notes easier to process...to a point. Past that point, it's a waste of time that makes your notes harder to process. No good.

Find Your Way to Compartmentalize

Whichever way you prefer to add separation to your notes, use it.

Whether it's using different notebooks for different projects, starting new pages, blocking off separate sections of the notebook, using color coding, sticking in post-it bookmarks, or whatever else works for you.

Making it easy to jump to specific sections of your notes quickly and easily is super useful once they start to accumulate.

Let Things Breathe

Like I mentioned earlier, one of the concepts I loved from the Bullet Journal Method was to "let things breathe."

I don't know why it's apparently common to feel the need to cram as much in our notebooks as possible, but it's not the best approach. It makes things end up cluttered, less organized, and hard to reference later.

Not being afraid to start a new page or skip a few lines makes more of a difference than you think.

The more physical space your notes take up once they're written down, the less space they take up in your mind.

Make Time to Process Your Notes

Back to the review and processing I mentioned earlier as well. At the end of every day, I go through my journal and cross out or migrate any remaining to-dos.

Along with that, I review any passing thoughts I wrote down during the day and decide whether to "keep" them for the future by bringing them into Notion, or leaving them in the journal.

You don't need to do this daily, especially if you don't take a lot of notes. But whether it's weekly, monthly, or whenever you finish the pages of a notebook, a review of it makes sure you don't have to spend time in the future flipping through pages looking for something.

Think of Future You

Whether it's by creating an index, highlighting, or building in a process to review your notes, all of these components of your notebook organization system focus on making things easier for future you. That way, you're not just taking notes and filling notebooks, you're using them.

Are you ready to start working brighter?

Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

Sign up to get weekly tips and stories to help you create your OWN definition of productivity working better and brighter.