My note-taking system for work

Ever since I started working back in 2006, I’ve used a notebook. Initially, I didn’t have a system, I just wrote things down. Then, about seven years ago, when I became a scrum master, my notebook became more important. As a tester, I could use my team’s board to keep track of my work. As a scrum master, none of my work was on the board. And even though my role has changed several times since then, my need for keeping track of things hasn’t.

So somewhere along the way - and to be honest I forgot when exactly - I created my own system of note-taking based on bullet journaling. It’s simple and straightforward. It helps me plan my day, list possible future actions, and keep a record of what I’ve been doing. On the one hand it seems like something small and simple. On the other hand it has been a major help to me, so I figured it’s worth sharing.

My note-taking system

My note-taking system is basically a bullet journal1. It’s a notebook. There are two kinds of things in it: monthly spreads and daily entries. And at the start of the notebook there’s a third thing: an index to keep track of what’s where. So it lists where the monthly spreads are and the range of pages for each month’s daily entries.

The monthly spread

At the start of every month I make a new monthly spread.2 It consists of two pages. On the right page of the monthly spread I collect feedback I get during the month. The left page has a list of things I might do. It’s not a plan or a commitment. It’s a list of options for that month, nothing more. The first time you create this spread, you might have some ideas already or it might start out empty and you fill it as the month progresses. Either will work. Then, at the start of each next month, you go through the previous month’s list. If you did something but forgot to mark it as done, do that now. Then for the remaining items, you decide to either copy the item to the new spread, or to drop it and forget about it.

The daily entries

At the start of each day I create a daily entry. I write the date and draw a rectangle around it, so that it stands out. I list my meetings of the day and the other things I intend to do that day. Often enough some unforeseen work pops up during the day, so that gets added to the daily entry as well.

The symbols

Both in the monthly spreads and the daily entries, I use a symbol to capture the status of an item. Everything starts with a vertically centered dot in front of it, which means I haven’t done it yet. When something is done, I draw an “x” over that dot. If I didn’t get to it and it moves to the next day or next monthly spread, I draw a “>” over the dot. If I worked on something, but it’s not finished yet, I draw a “+”. If I decide that I won’t do the things after all, I strikethrough the entry. Finally, if I need to remind myself something is very important, I’ll add an exclamation mark in front of it.

What’s not in my work notebook

There are some things I would put in my work notebook, if I didn’t prefer having them in my personal notebook (also a bullet journal). Notes from trainings and conferences. My daily journaling entries. Notes for the work-related books I’m reading.

The system remains the same, though. The daily journaling (in the periods when I actually do it) I do at the end of the day, so those would go at the end of the daily entries. The notes from conferences and books get added similarly to the monthly spread. Go to the next empty page, write a title at the top, and add an entry for it to the index.

What I’ve also found useful is to draw a symbol in the bottom corner of the page for these entries. It’s easier to identify a page as containing notes about a book if there’s a small drawing of a book at the bottom of the page. And if I need to continue my notes on a new page, but there are pages of other stuff in between, I draw an arrow and write the page number of the old page on the new page and vice versa. That way I can browse through all the notes on a particular topic without having to check the index.

The experience matters

Another aspect that’s important - at least to me - is the experience of using the notebook. I want the act of adding things to it, marking things as done, etc to be pleasant. For me that means using a hardcover dotted A5 notebook and writing with a fountain pen.

It’s not just about a nice experience, though. There are also some practical reasons.

That it needs to be a hardcover notebook is a remnant from when I still worked at an office instead of remotely. Hardcover means I can easily write in it, without needing a table. For example when sitting in comfortable chairs during a 1-to-1. And a notebook and not a laptop, because a laptop has always felt to me as a barrier between me and the people I’m talking with. I don’t have that feeling with a notebook.

Those considerations became invalid when I started working remotely three years ago. I have thought about moving to a digital notebook, but so far haven’t. For one, I just really like having a physical notebook and writing with a fountain pen. For some reason, I also prefer to have my notebook not on my computer screen, i.e. where all my work is. And finally, I’ve noticed that I find it easier to keep listening and thinking while I write by hand than while I type on a keyboard.

What I like about my system

A lot of what I like about my system comes straight from its inspiration: bullet journaling. As Ryder Carroll, its creator, writes in “The Bullet Journal Method”:

The Bullet Journal method’s mission is to help us become mindful about how we spend our two most valuable resources in life: our time and our energy. […] How does it do this? By weaving together productivity, mindfulness, and intentionality into a framework that is flexible, forgiving, and most importantly, practical. (p 15)

It’s practical

It’s practical, because you can just write stuff down. It’s always clear where to add what, so there’s no decision-making before you can start writing. You don’t have to plan out pages. If you want to start something new, take the next blank one, add it to the index, done. The symbols to keep track of status are straightforward. The system does a great job providing structure while also not getting in your way.

It’s forgiving

Both the monthly spread and the daily entries are for options, things that you might do. Most of the things that end up in my daily entries I actually complete that day or over the next few days. But sometimes I just keep moving a task over to the next day and the next and the next… And my monthly spread always fills up quite quickly with more stuff I can possibly do in a month. And the great thing is that that’s ok.

Every time you start a new daily entry or a new monthly spread, you get the opportunity to reflect. To apply that mindfulness and intentionality Ryder Carroll talks about and decide: do I want to keep this option in my list? Do I want to spend some of my energy on keeping it around? Or is it fine to just let it go? To simply not do the thing?

It’s flexible

Throughout the years my note-taking system has been evolving with me.

Before working remotely I had more notes in my daily entries, mostly meeting notes. These days, those meeting notes are digital and shared. So my daily entries are mostly a list of activities, notes of 1-to-1 chats, and the occasional reflection.

The feedback page of the monthly spread I added only a few months ago. I was still very much searching in my new role as quality engineer, making me doubt myself. Yet I was also getting positive feedback from my colleagues, so I decided to track that in my monthly spread as a reminder to myself.

Using the “+” as a marker that I worked on something, but it’s not done yet, is also a very recent addition. And while writing this blog post, I discovered that bullet journaling uses a dot for tasks and a circle for events. So I think I’ll try using a circle for meetings for a while to see how that goes.

How my note-taking has helped me

The main benefit of taking notes is that it has helped me to manage my work. Especially when you get into a role where most of your work is not captured in work items and/or tickets (such as team lead or principal engineer), you need something to keep track of everything. You could create your personal board in whatever work management tool your company uses and share that. I don’t do that, because I like to have everything in one place and I wouldn’t want to share my notes of 1-to-1s or of my reflections on my work and the company.

More specifically, my note-taking system has helped me to structure my days and my months. It’s nice to start the day with the daily entry and create an overview of what your day will look like. And the monthly spread is a great tool to not lose sight of things that are important, but not necessarily urgent. It lets you take a step back from the day-to-day and be intentional with your time and energy.

Another benefit is having a record of what you’ve done. A running joke when I was a principal engineer was that people asked “So what is it exactly that Joep does all day?” Not because I wasn’t doing anything, but because I was doing so many different things. One day, however, my manager asked that question. So I went through my notebook and created an overview of the previous six months. I had several categories, each with activities and how often I did them. For example, I could tell my manager for example that I reviewed pull requests to our test automation several times per week.

This record of activities has also helped me preparing my performance reviews.3 Especially the monthly spreads, because those capture the bigger, more one-off kinds of things you do. I might not remember that I spent a week nine months ago solving an annoying department-wide problem, but my notebook does.

  1. If you want to learn more about the original Bullet Journal method, these two videos are a great start: “How to Bullet Journal” and What is The Bullet Journal Method?. Both are by the creator of the method, Ryder Carroll

  2. To be perfectly honest, I don’t do this every month. I do take a moment at the start of every month to decide if I should create a new spread or just use the current one for another month. 

  3. For a similar but also different approach, read Elizabeth Zagroba‘s excellent post “Recapping My Year for a Performance Review”