Why I keep a paper notebook

Notebook and laptop

Is your keyboard poisoning your penmanship? This article is about why I maintain a collection of squiggly scratchings.

I’ve observed an occasional blink and head-tilt, by hurrying developers, when they spot the scrambled scratching of my navy-blue book.

“We are a paperless office” – a phrase shouted out jokingly when someone whips out their notebook.

Writing versus Typing

I find that when I write something down, I tend to remember it better.

**I don’t keep my notebook especially pristine **– there are sentences and diagrams that are scratched out. But everything must be at least readable by me. That is because I want to be able to look back on everything.

Usually, each page is related to a user story. I like to keep the status of the story noted at the top. For example, “in review”, “released” etc so that I know which pages to ignore when flicking through.

Another benefit of writing over typing is, you can just start writing. You cannot procrastinate, labouring over font choice, document theme or indentation style of the bullet points.

You can also draw! I’m not talking about sketches, but simple diagrams. Make use of the Entity-Relationship (ER) Diagrams or Universal Markup Language (UML) diagrams you learned about at college/university. This is a fantastic way to explain to someone else what you are thinking. I suggest that you don’t sketch too formally.

I like to make spider diagrams when I’m following along with online courses. This helps reduce distraction and means that I can easily look back on what I’ve learned.

Later doesn’t have to mean never

When we think “I’ll do that later”, just remember that: “Later means never”. That may be a little glass-half-empty but it’s just a manifestation of our human nature to forget.

To help stay more focused on the main task at hand, when you spot an “oh, I really need to …” Make a note of it and move on then come back before you check it in. This guarantees its completion. It also means that you don’t have as much going on in your head distracting from the current problem.


During my placement year, the team I was assigned to provided application support. Mostly bug fixes and small feature releases. 

One of my many secrets to debugging is this.

When you have a notebook, comb through all of the related files and make a note of the weirdness and suspiciousness.

Say to yourself, “It’s a bit weird this part does y”. Writing down notes like this is related to why rubber duck debugging is so effective. 

Read back over your list and test each of these parts in depth. You may find that one of your notes was the true source of the bug.

Your list can also form new items to add to the bug tracker – or for the next time that you have to debug in this area.

How to start coding as soon as you arrive

There are 16 hours between when you leave at 5 pm and get into the office the next day at 9. Friday to Monday that’s 64 hours.

My old morning office routine (post coffee): a couple of taps on the space bar to wake up my laptop;  laptop presents me with my editor and browser. It has remembered how I had left it; I read the code that I was working on; refresh myself of the variables, conditions and things that I was thinking about before I went home, re-read the story (task) on the tracker; then finally start working.

I needed to be more like my laptop and create a restore point, rather than powering off at the end of the day. Cal Newport, in his book _Deep Work, _calls this his “shutdown ritual”. He literally says “Shutdown complete” to himself when he does this.

Allocate your last 5 minutes before you go home to note down what you are doing and what you need to do when you come in.

If you are following this step, this may just be a case of collecting all of the “oh, I really need to’s”.

A side benefit to this is that you aren’t thinking about work when you get home.

Notebook affiliate links:

Just kidding.

Start off with any notebook. I prefer size A5. This forces me to be a bit more concise.

I’ve seen some people use a diary for this and they leverage the dates for looking back.

If you find you are not really using it, go and get yourself a techier one. I seen one that allows you to synchronise your handwritten notes to your computer.


Do you keep a notebook for work? If so comment below, I’d love to know if there are more useful things we could be using our notebooks for.

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