Category: Tools

Own the Process

I spent a lot of time recently looking at note taking apps. I read all about “building a second brain” and created a whole load of processes to support doing that. I had this idea that I could use those same processes to support writing fiction. It was all setup and working and I stuck with it for about two days before I threw it all in the bin.

The thing is, and this is a truth that I’ve been fighting against for probably five or more years, note taking isn’t naturally how I work. Sure, I can do it but I’m fighting against my inclination.

Digital tools work in a specific way and if you use them that’s the way you have to work. As I found, just having the app creates a requirement to do a process. I had a note taking app, so I needed to take notes.

Before I started down the digital note taking route, I was keeping a paper notebook in my pocket, but I didn’t use it very often and I thought that was proof that paper notebooks didn’t work for me. But the truth is, I used it the amount that I naturally take notes without being prompted. When I switched to a digital system it created an artificial use requirement.

It took me a long time to realise that I don’t need to constantly be taking notes and that I shouldn’t feel guilty when days go by with nothing new being added. I have never had trouble coming up with ideas for stories so there is no need to build this system.


My oldest son, Jude, is six years old and has global development delays. He doesn’t speak. Which I only mention because it’s relevant to some of what follows.

Jude is very quick to pick up routines and habits. If I wear the same top a couple of days in a row it becomes something he expects to see me wearing. If I’m not wearing it but have left it somewhere he can reach then he will quite often pick it up and bring it over to me. He also likes routines and habits because they make him feel secure and that he knows what’s going to happen.

We try to use this to our mutual advantage. So, for example, there are specific songs that I sing him while he’s having his teeth brushed, when he’s having his pajamas put on, when he’s having his hair washed, etc. It took me a long time to figure this out because the actual song doesn’t matter, it just needs to be the same one every time. I am now consciously using this technique to make things better for both of us.

Which brings me to my next thought and something that I am putting into practice: using the same technique on myself.

I’m not singing songs to myself but I have used Apple Music to create some playlists for specific activities like writing and working. I already had one for running, but for some reason it had never occurred to me to do the same for other activities. Partly that was because I usually prefer to write in silence, but in a house full of noise that’s not really possible, so a soundtrack of music without vocals is possibly the next best thing.

It’s still early days for this, but I know it works for running and I know that it works for Jude, so I’m hoping for similar results in the other areas of my life where I’m trying it.


Yesterday we had a bit of a clear out at home and I dedicated the bottom drawer in my bedside table as a charging station. It is where all of my most used electronic devices now live (the ones which are used less often are in a plastic tub under the bed). Once I’d finished setting it up I started to think about what I was going to get out and when. Some of it is obvious: I will get my headphones out when I want to listen to music, but others not so much.

It occurred to me that the default was that I would have certain things with me all the time, or at least within easy reach. My phone being the main culprit there. But with a new default (the bottom drawer) I started to think about what that was going to mean when I was working. Which led me to realise how many potential disruptions I was surrounding myself with.

Old Count of disruptions at work

  1. Personal Phone: Messages
  2. Personal Phone: Phone calls
  3. Personal Phone: Whatsapp
  4. Apple Watch: Messages
  5. Apple Watch: Phone calls
  6. Apple Watch: Stand reminders
  7. Work Phone: Messages
  8. Work Phone: Phone calls
  9. Work Computer: Email
  10. Work Computer: Google Hangouts messages
  11. Work Computer: Google Hangouts calls
  12. Work Computer: Jabber

Which doesn’t even cover the things that might not send me messages to disrupt me but that I might just pick up and check on my phone. It’s a crazy amount of things that could be breaking my concentration.

A brief aside – I have been struggling to decide what to do with my Apple Watch for some time. It doesn’t really fit in with my lifestyle to have a small square strapped to my wrist. But at the same time it’s very useful for tracking my workouts and as a silent alarm so I don’t wake up the whole house in the morning. It seemed like a waste to only use it for those things while it was always out, but now it’s in a drawer I don’t feel the same responsibility to use it all the time.

There are some distractions that I can’t do anything about. My boss wants me to be available on instant messenger so I have to have that running, but I considered my options and came up with this:

New Count of disruptions at work

  1. Work Phone: Messages
  2. Work Phone: Phone calls
  3. Work Computer: Email – but I keep it paused using Boomerang so it’s not constantly disrupting me
  4. Work Computer: Google Hangouts messages
  5. Work Computer: Google Hangouts calls
  6. Work Computer: Jabber

This means that I am using my computer to listen to music, but that’s not a big problem and certainly worth doing to halve the number of disruptions I have to deal with in a day.

Seven Notebooks

I use seven different notebooks on an (almost) daily basis. It seems like a lot, and maybe it is, but I have tried using fewer and it doesn’t work as well for me. I have also tried using digital methods, and while it is convenient to have all of my notebooks with me at all times, I don’t enjoy it as much. And, while the digital method might only require one device, it still splits things across multiple applications, so I don’t think I am much better off that way.

These are my notebooks and what I currently use them for:

Starting from the top

  1. My pocket notebook, I carry this everywhere for making quick notes
  2. My log book, at the end of every day I write down the things that I have done
  3. I am part of a climate action group and this is where I keep my notes from meetings
  4. My journal
  5. My reading list, this is where I write down the books that I have read
  6. My writing book, this is where I write my first drafts
  7. My task manager, loosely based on the Bullet Journal system

Clearly I don’t carry all of these around with me all the time but they are each indispensable in their own ways.


Time & Tools

Time. Where does it go? It seems there’s never enough of it.

I seem to have a hundred projects on the go at the moment; at work, at home and writing. Everything is getting very busy.

I’m not sure that I’m keeping on top of it but I’m trying. It’s a real challenge to my analogue productivity philosophy.

Things could get even busier. Now is the time to make sure I have a robust set of tools and workflows to make sure I can handle it.

This was not supposed to be a post about the tools I am using, but here we go.

The primary tool I have is habits and routines. These are things that I have been building over the past few months (and will continue to build) that mean the day to day things are taken care of. I have time to work on fiction, I am eating well, I am exercising and I am spending time with my family. These are the bedrocks that I build upon for everything else.

My task management needs work. I am floating somewhere between several systems and have different systems depending on whether it is work, personal or writing. Ideally I would like to consolidate these things, probably using Todoist. Then I have about twenty different calendars in Google. The process I follow is to visit each of those sources every day and create an analogue day plan. This goes in a dot-grid medium Moleskine – although I will be changing that to a LEUCHTTURM1917 shortly because I carry around so many Moleskine notebooks that I can’t tell which one I need at any given time. My day plan includes all of the habits, meetings, and tasks that I plan to accomplish. Generally I split the page in four so that I have two scheduled breaks and a lunch. This only covers my day at work, my mornings and evenings are essentially habit focused with little variation.

One place where I think this can be improved is by also scheduling my weekends. It is something that I plan to look into.

Notes are another big part of my workflow. I use a pocket Moleskine for when I am out and about and Standard Notes for at a computer. This is an evolving system.

Then I have a series of notebooks for specific purposes, a “general writing” book which is where most of my writing starts off, fiction and non-fiction. A logbook which I use as a kind of diary to keep track of the things that I do each day.

Most of these ideas are from other people and a lot of the tension I’m feeling right now is probably a result of not having moulded them into a coherent “system” of my own. It feels like a process that I can’t rush, or I’ll end up skipping from system to system and never settle. It’s a cycle that I’ve gotten into before.

A few of the sources that have inspired my system which are worth checking out if you would like to know more: