Business Magazine

Personal Organisation #101 - the Single Best Idea

Posted on the 17 January 2011 by Alanhargreaves @RechargeToday

Do you know this internal dialogue?

In the meeting: That’s great info. I must look up that website before the next meeting.

Next week: Where did I put that URL? I know I wrote it down in the meeting. Where was it?

The week after: I’d better log on again and print off that download. What did I do with the password? I scribbled it on a post-it note. Where’s that? 

Just prior to the next meeting: What were the key points I took down from that website? I wrote them on a pad. Where’s that pad?

It might not have been a URL. It might have been someone’s contact number, or their address. Or maybe it was the outline of that absolutely brilliant idea you had for a presentation while you were waiting in the departure lounge. It was so clear in my head after I had drawn all the circles and arrows. How did it work again? 

For me, those dialogues stopped in 1995, when someone made a simple suggestion. Prior to that I had tried palm pilots, scribbling in my diary, dictaphones and various electronic inventions which tried to solve the same problem. They always looked like a good idea in duty-free. I would later try Blackberries, iPhones and smart pens. But so far, I have always ended up retreating to the simple suggestion of 1995. 

What was it?

It was the Plain Book.

I call it that because that’s what it is. I buy them at the local newsagent. I am now on my 17th. It is A4 in size. It has 168, ruled pages. There are no tabs or dates. The only pictures in there are the ones I doodle. It cost $1.45. I will probably have to buy another one before the end of the year. 

There are two things I can say about plain book #17.

  • It will travel with me EVERYWHERE until it is full.
  • I will put EVERYTHING in it. 

Everything. Notes I take in meetings; chance items that I hear in passing; the IRR someone said was essential for the project to work; URLs; flight numbers; ideas for anything; how much pocket money I agreed to give my daughter and for how long (preferably signed by her); suggestions for my wife’s birthday present(s); great diagrams for presentation slides. Even the odd business card gets stuck in there, as do some crucial post-it notes written on the fly. Like I said, everything.

The problem I have with all the alternatives is that there is always one extra step to make it work. Have you tried drawing great circles and arrows on your Blackberry? Or sticking a post it note in your iPhone? 

I use an iPhone for diary planning and for communication. But it is just not one-step enough for me to capture EVERYTHING quickly and with a minimum of fuss.

It is not because I am digitally-challenged or techno-phobic. I am open to any new idea.

I got all excited recently when I experimented with a Livescribe Smart Pen. This is an excellent product. It’s like a dictaphone on digital steroids.

Unfortunately, when I tried to use it as a replacement for my plain book, I ran into problems. The pages were perforated and started to tear and I lost a few. Sometimes the battery in the pen ran out and I didn't have the recharger with me. Other times I took the smart book with me but left the smart pen in the car. 

The ability to download my notes onto my computer is a great feature, but I invariably didn’t get around to it. It meant calling up the site and doing stuff. I am one of those people who never looks beyond the first page of results on Google.

I love the product, but by the end of the month I had retreated to my plain book.

I once managed a complex business transaction while stuck in a Middle East transit lounge when it was the middle of the night just about everywhere else. I was able to do this because all the crucial information was in my plain book.

Not that long ago I won a legal argument on the back of notes I had taken in a negotiation meeting several years before. They were easily referenced. I found them in Plain Book #6. It took a couple of minutes.

In a seminar just after my 60th birthday I was asked what was the single best idea I had encountered throughout my career when it came to personal organisation.  My answer was not a digital solution, or an inspired matrix, or a motivational quote. It was this:

The single best idea I was ever given was to carry a single book with me at all times. To write everything in it. To never throw it away. And when it was full, to keep it in a single pile with all the ones that came before it.

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